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20 November 2008 Edition

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More than a game BY MATT TREACY

Match-fixing of the day

THE sensitive subject of players betting against themselves was the subject of some discussion recently in relation to certain Eircom League soccer players apparently wetting their beaks. Given that the matter is still, presumably, under investigation, we will say no more.
While it is hopefully a rare phenomenon in this country, hooky business involving participants, gambling and the fixing of sporting events has long been prevalent and appears to be endemic in some countries where strange betting patterns on the internet exchange sites have coincided with strange results, including score predictions.
In 2006, the Italian Serie A was turned on its head after revelations of match fixing although betting was only one of the aspects of the scandal which saw Juventus stripped of their titles, banned from the Champions League and relegated to Serie B, from which they returned last year despite a nine points deduction. Strange results still continue to be the bane of gamblers who really ought to have gotten sense by this stage!
Portuguese champions FC Porto are currently being investigated in connection with alleged match-fixing during the 2003/2004 season. What makes this more serious is that they won the Champions League that year although the allegations appear to centre on domestic games. Even the Germans have failed to remain immune and the allegations there centre directly on the manipulation of results which were heavily gambled on in the huge Asian betting market. One referree has been suspended for life and imprisoned for having fixed matches on behalf of a Croatian gang.
The British police are also currently investigating claims that a recent match between Derby County and Norwich City was fixed after what one professional gambler described as the strangest betting patterns he had ever witnessed – again tied to huge amounts of money being bet in Asia. The scale of legal betting alone in Asia – and illegal betting comprises at least half of what is wagered – is indicated by the fact that somewhere in the region of £40bn is bet each year in the Philippines alone on the English Premiership.
It might still, however, seem odd that highly-paid professionals, as opposed to players in countries where there is not as much cash about and therefore temptations are greater, would be amenable to approaches from match-fixers. Then again, when you look at the calibre of some of the imbeciles who populate the professional ranks, it becomes less fantastic.

AND, of course, soccer is not the only target for match-fixers. When Bob Woolmer, the cricket coach of Pakistan, died following a series of strange results involving his team, there were allegations that he had been murdered (he wasn’t) and there have been numerous cases where cricket, especially in Pakistan and India, has been compromised in conjunction with betting coups.
There were also strong suspicions that a number of matches at the 2007 Wimbledon tennis tournament had been fixed by Russian and east European gambling syndicates who were betting on particular players – none of them higly ranked it has to be said -–to lose 3-0 in sets. So, no sport is immune, just as no person is immune from the temptation of large amounts of money. For example, one of the players asked to throw a match at Wimbledon was offered seven times the amount he would have received had he won.
Interestingly, none of the players targeted by the gamblers was expected to win, which separates it from the classic gangster film scenario in which a boxer who is favourite to win a fight is bribed or threatened by sinister Meditererrean types to ‘take a dive’, thus allowing them and their associates to make a killing backing the outsider. As indeed happened regularly in the days of legendary New York mob fixer Frankie Carbo.
Event-fixing now tends to involve unevenly matched opponents. Where there is collusion for non-betting purposes in soccer it often involves a team fighting relegation or chasing a promotion or qualification spot against one for whom none of these is an issue. Which is why it is always a good idea to avoid betting on such matches.

THIS has given rise to a theory of  asymmetry to explain the logic behind match-fixing in soccer. Raul Caruso, appropriately enough of the University of Milan, claims that the fix is often facilitated where the awards are asymmetric. If it matters more to you than it does to me then I have an incentive for taking the dive. And, of course, where the outcome is agreed the logical next step is to take advantage of the betting opportunities which that presents.
Caruso provides a mathematical model to predict when the likelihood of match-fixing is greatest. What he describes as the “Match-Fixing Region (MFR)”. In actual fact the model relies on information that is generally available and would indicate to any shrewd enough observer of a soccer tournament, for example, the relative value of the outcome for the teams involved. And the possibility that, as with the tennis match-fixing at Wimbledon, one of the contestants might be prepared to capitalise on their likely defeat through gambling or being bribed to facilitate other gamblers.
Without prejudice to the ongoing investigation regarding the Eircom League, it does have to be said that most of the matches under investigation in recent times were classic cases involving asymmetric outcomes and therefore entering the MFR. But then only a mug would bet on a team to win a match in which they have nothing to gain but which for their opponent will determine the outcome of their season.
Of course, that worldly wisdom does not apply to the bookmakers who are conned and who have to price up events on the trust that they are being honestly contested. Not to mention the fact that players going out to be deliberately beaten and worse again betting on it are undermining the basis of sport.
Mind you, it might be worthwhile looking around for any future matches in the MFR!

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