The Greatest Case of Commercial Blindness in the History of Sports Integrity
There are all kinds of examples of inappropriate blindness. There was Captain Smith of the SS Titanic not seeing the iceberg. There was Admiral Nelson putting the telescope to his eye patch not to see the signal to retreat. There was Johnny Papalia the mafia thug who beat up the head of Toronto’s illegal gambling racket in front of two-hundred people in a crowded restaurant and when the police arrived none of the patrons said they saw anything.
Then there is FIFA’s Early Warning System (EWS) a gambling monitoring company designed to spot match-fixing. Yet in all the time they worked for FIFA, they never managed to see one fixed match. Never in their uneventful career did they ever gather the world’s media together and announced that they had successfully accomplished their mission.
So let us be very clear, FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s decision to replace the Early Warning System (EWS) with SportsRadar is a good thing.
EWS was always an odd, feeble ghost of an organization. Set up in 2005 as a ‘private company’ it was run by a pal of Sepp Blatter. Its principal customer was FIFA. Its undistinguished record of never discovering a fixed match occurred at a time when other gambling monitoring companies were uncovering dozens of cases, and more significantly, European Police forces were showing that hundreds of soccer matches had been fixed.
Their failure goes down as the greatest case of commercial blindness in the history of sports integrity. Even the ancient Romans were willing to jeer the all-powerful Emperor Nero when he fixed their chariot races, and those spectators faced the wrath of the Praetorian Guard.
SportRadar, on the other hand, is a credible company that does good work. It has been bloodied in dozens of legal cases around the world. When I was testifying in a match-fixing case in Greece in 2011, their fingerprints were all over the difficult prosecution case. Their work like many other companies in the billion-dollar sports gambling monitoring industry is straight-forward. They study the odds movements in the gambling market to see if there is anything unusual – like fixing – that is occurring in a sports event.
So having a reputable gambling monitoring company like SportRadar is a good first step in protecting the integrity of sports. However, there are still a number of weakness in relying only on SportRadar as FIFA’s integrity monitors.
Ghost Fixing and Toxic Sausages
The first is that monitoring companies are only as good as their weakest link. Across the industry there have been consistent cases of ‘ghost fixing’ where relatively low-paid monitors go to obscure games and make up the results. In fairness, SportsRadar has no known cases of their low-level employees going rogue, but the point is that if ghost-fixing is done successfully it will never be detected.
The second issue is who pays SportRadar? FIFA. It is in FIFA’s commercial interests not to reveal if any of their matches are fixed. The proper analogy is the meat-packing plant that is producing toxic sausages: the management does not want to produce bad sausages, but they really do not want their customers to know that their sausages are bad. So why would SportRadar announce publicly if they discovered fixing and irritate their client? No insult to SportRadar or FIFA, but this is a conflict of interest. To cut through this issue, two things should be done.
One, there should be a public list – available on the Internet – of FIFA matches or tournaments red-flagged by SportRadar. This would ensure that pressure is kept on the organizers of tournaments.
Two, SportRadar’s most-irritating rival – Federbet – should also be charged with checking SportRadar’s work. Nothing – given the sometimes bitter personal relationship between some of their companies executives – could motive SportRadar more. If Federbet were to discover a genuine suspicious match, they would red-flag it publicly and get to embarrass SportRadar.
SportRadar has produced numerous public warnings of the extent of match-fixing in sports.
Small Matches in Small Markets
However, these points cover up the real issue: gambling monitoring is only good for small games in small leagues or small tournaments. To be fair, part of the reason why EWS never discovered any fixing in football was that it is almost impossible to spot unusual betting patterns in a World Cup match. The gambling market is measured in billions of dollars making any monitoring of odds movements practically useless.
FIFA needs to do two more things, along with hiring SportsRadar, to properly guard it’s integrity. It needs a well-funded and independent integrity department. SportRadar’s people cannot investigate the Asian, Latin American or North American (AFC, COMEMBOL, CONCACAF) or other continental associations, were corruption that helped fixing was shown to exist. FIFA integrity officials could – potentially – have that power.
In reality, it is very unlikely that FIFA will properly equip its own integrity or ethics officials to do this job. So football also needs an independent, international ethics association. Ideally, it should be housed in WADA (whose recent work on Russian doping was excellent).
Another Alphabet Soup Organization
There is another organization that is circling slowly around this issue: the Qataris and their laughable attempts to get the policing of sports integrity placed into their hands.
No joke – although to newcomers into this field it must sound like one – the Qatari sports establishment has launched yet another alphabet soup of a sports integrity organization – SIGA (Sports Integrity Global Alliance) – to eventually replace the group they founded a few years ago – ICSS (International Centre for Sports Security) – which seems in an organizational tailspin.
Last week, SIGA held a conference which was attended by the usual crowd of the – mostly – hopeless, clueless or principle-less consultants, academics and vague sports-organizations-that-few-have-heard-of. At the moment, the only useful purpose that SIGA serves is identifying who are these people and groups. The reason for my contempt for these Qatari-backed “sports integrity” organizations is that they have their own blindness problems. After all the speeches at all their conferences they still have not investigated the Qatari’s own Mohammed bin Hammam or dealt with the issue of thousands of allegedly trafficked workers suffering human rights abuses who are building the Qatari World Cup infrastructure. It is good to see that SIGA is largely ignored by the Olympic movement and major football associations. Sports integrity really does not need such an organization, we have already had to endure EWS for far too long.