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Fears of widespread match-fixing by organised crime syndicates have spurred sports regulators and law enforcement agencies to up their game against rigged results

This article was first published in the April 2013 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Sports regulators, police and other players in the emerging global scandal over match-fixing and other forms of bribery, fraud and corruption need more dedicated accounting skills in-house to prevent, detect and prosecute offences. That’s the view of Dr Graham Brooks, a leading independent analyst of sports crime and senior lecturer at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies (ICJS) at the University of Portsmouth, in England. ‘Sporting institutions are behind the curve and need specialists including people trained in forensic accounting within them,’ he says.

Brooks is among numerous financial and law enforcement professionals concerned about the problems faced by sports regulators such as the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Cricket Council (ICC) as big money flows into sport through sponsorship, TV rights and betting (illegal, legal and online).

Brooks believes that large sports organisations focus too much on generating commercial revenue and too little on the integrity of their sports.

Organised crime

His championing of financial experts in professional sport follows recent revelations by EU law enforcement coordinating agency Europol after spending 18 months with police teams from five European countries investigating a criminal network fixing football matches around the world. It concluded that an organised crime syndicate with roots in Singapore had generated more than €8m in betting profits and made over €2m in corrupt payments; 14 people have already been convicted and sentenced to a total of 39 years in prison.

Speaking at the agency’s Dutch HQ in February, Europol director Rob Wainwright said it highlighted ‘a big problem for the integrity of football in Europe’ as well as globally. ‘This is match-fixing activity on a scale that we’ve not seen before.’

Brooks says that many legal betting organisations have a vested interest in sports being ‘clean’ as people will not bet if they think there is widespread rigging of results. These companies have the experience and systems to detect unusual betting patterns. ‘They report this but the sports authorities are just too slow or incompetent, or do not have the right people in place to deal with it,’ says Brooks.

‘When something goes wrong, the police are called in, but by then they are chasing the money and it’s disappeared.’

Studies by Brooks and others suggest limited capacity and propensity on the part of police in the UK to investigate fraud allegations because they focus on key performance indicators of local concern, which might not include sports fraud.

‘So in the UK you have a lack of focus from the sporting institutions and limited capability within the police to deal with this problem,’ Brooks
says. ‘It’s an organised crime syndicate’s dream.’

Legal betting is only part of the picture. Various sources including FIFA cite the estimated size of the global sports betting market at between US$350bn and US$400bn a year. And IOC president Jacques Rogge claims that US$140bn of this is illegal. Most such wagers are in cash, which is hard to follow without the help of informants and confessions by offenders.

Net tightens

Despite the difficulties, sports and betting company directors need to be concerned about their personal exposure to these problems. There is the threat of jail and fines for offences variously defined as cheating, corruption, fraud, giving and receiving bribes, or failing to report a known or suspected offence. The international nature of match-fixing is also driving cross-border cooperation between sports regulators and law enforcement agencies. The net is tightening.

A 2012 European Commission survey Match-fixing in sport: a mapping of criminal law provisions in EU 27 summarised offences and penalties for match-fixing in the EU. The practice is criminalised in all EU states but there is a lack of consistency. At one extreme, sports fraudsters in Germany and Greece can be jailed for up to 10 years. In the UK, a slew of laws provide for fines and jail sentences from a few months to seven years and upwards depending on the gravity of the offence. At the other extreme, sports fraud in Italy is punishable by a maximum of two years in jail and fines of less than €5,000.

Political will is strengthening. In its Nicosia Declaration in September 2012, the EU, the European Commission and others declared match-fixing ‘one of the most serious threats to contemporary sport’. It called for ‘dissuasive, effective and proportionate sanctions, including criminal and disciplinary sanctions’ to be put in place and enforced.

It also called on member states to prioritise the prosecution of serious match-fixing cases, particularly those with cross-border implications, and noted a need for ‘urgent, concerted, and coordinated efforts from public authorities, the sport movement and betting operators’.

The European Commission is drafting formal guidance on best practice for preventing and combating betting-related match fixing in 2014. Brussels has stressed it will continually assess whether actions taken at national level provide an adequate EU framework for online gambling or if additional measures will need to be taken at EU level.

Money laundering

The EU is currently debating a fourth anti-money laundering directive and there are suggestions that the reformed law could extend to sports betting organisations, with the specific aim of identifying bettors. Sports betting legislation is currently regulated on a national rather than an EU basis.

Identifying who gains could be vital in addressing a major problem: the difficulty of proving that a game has been thrown or that individual players have rigged results rather than just having had a bad day on the pitch.

Meanwhile, the Council of Europe (an organisation that pre-dates the EU and promotes co-operation on human rights and legal standards) is awaiting delivery of a draft convention on the manipulation of sports results. When the draft appears, the Council will decide whether to finalise it as a political convention or make it a non-binding legal instrument.

In another sign of the times, international police coordinating agency Interpol along with FIFA, UEFA and the Italian ministry of the interior hosted 200 delegates from 50 countries at a conference in Rome in January to discuss prevention and investigation of football match-fixing. The gathering also included officials from other international organisations, national football associations, players and referee representatives, betting organisations, gambling regulatory authorities and law enforcement.

After the conference, John Abbott, steering group chairman for an Interpol-FIFA initiative on corruption in football, said: ‘We got very common agreement on the way forward and the importance of tackling match-fixing more effectively from now and into the future.’ Concrete steps have yet to be agreed, but Interpol and FIFA plan a rolling series of events to raise awareness and make more detailed plans.

An Asian version of the conference, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, followed in February. Yet with so many vested interests and little joined-up thinking to date, truly effective and speedy change may involve the unthinkable, warns Brooks: ‘It may take a Lehman Brothers of the sporting world – a big-name football club to go under – before people wake up and say something’s amiss here.’

Robert Stokes, journalist

Last updated: 22 Jul 2014