Whether it’s the lower divisions of the Australian Pro League or the World Cup itself, all levels of world soccer have a serious problem. The game has been infiltrated and compromised by gamblers and criminals simply looking to make money, and who lack any regard for the integrity of “the beautiful game.” They identify, approach, and build relationships with federations, referees, and players, reaching into all facets of football to manipulate results and reap millions upon millions in profits.
The practice of match fixing is one that has plagued world football throughout its history, and recently has reached epidemic proportions with the advent and popularization of online gambling. It’s the subject of the book The Big Fix: The Hunt For The Match-Fixers Bringing Down World Soccer, written by Brett Forrest. A former writer for Complex and currently a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, Forrest began his quest with this simple question from his editor: why are there so many strange-looking scores in international friendlies?
Forrest’s mission to find the answer brought him to many different places, from Singapore to Australia to Qatar, as the practice of match fixing began to reveal itself as an overwhelmingly intricate system fueled by greed and controlled by some of the world’s largest and most influential crime syndicates. He spoke with the fixers themselves as well as those seeking to combat the problem with the limited resources they have, and he soon realized that this problem, so largely ignored by the general public, is actually a gravely serious threat to the game’s stability.
And, if you think that this practice can't reach up to the game's highest levels, you'd be dead wrong. Yesterday, the football federation for Cameroon announced that they were opening an investigation into possible fixing at the FIFA World Cup by an astounding seven of their players, with a particular focus on their 4-0 loss to Croatia.
We were able to catch up with Forrest recently to talk about the Cameroon scandal, as well as to learn more about match fixing and its implications going forward.
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What was your reaction to the news about Cameroon? Did you suspect anything while watching the game, or when you heard about the result?
The Alex Song red card infraction was odd. That struck me instantly as a strange one, especially as Song is a well-paid player with Barcelona. He earns about five million pounds a year--not the typical profile for a player engaged in fixing. Also, the legal betting market did not betray any signs of match manipulation. So there was no hard data that you could hang your hat on.
Given what you know about him and what you learned while talking with him, how seriously do you take Wilson Perumal's claims?
The only thing we have to go on is the allegation from Wilson Perumal, who allegedly sent a Facebook message to a German journalist before the game, predicting the score and the red card. Wilson has sent me similar messages in the past, predicting fixed matches before they occur. He has been right. He has been wrong. I know through my sources that this time, Perumal made two additional claims of World Cup fixed matches. One had the wrong score. The second was completely off-base. The third was the Cameroon game.
What to make of it? At this point, the investigation begins. I know that Facebook's security department is currently working to determine if Perumal himself sent the message from a verified account. And the Cameroon Football Federation has announced its own probe. What will come of that? Time and again, national soccer federations have looked into fixing allegations, only to sweep their findings under the rug in self-preservation. It says plenty about soccer's integrity that an allegation made by a convicted match-fixer is the catalyst for internal investigation. No one is minding the store.
What inspired you to write this book?
It all started about two years ago. My editor at ESPN Magazine called and said “What is going on with all the crazy scores we’re seeing in international friendlies?” I knew nothing about it, and my first phone call was to Chris Eaton [FIFA's former Director of Security]. From there, we progressed into doing reporting for a magazine article, simply that. And then, once the article was published it got a lot of attention…we optioned the rights to FOX [for a movie], and at the same time worked on a book deal.
When I called Chris Eaton I was shocked at what he told me. The more I spoke to him and others, I couldn’t believe that match fixing and match fixers were so prevalent in the game at almost every level, and I couldn’t believe the people who administered the game cared so little about this.
What is Eaton doing now? Is he still in Qatar?
He’s still very active, he still works for the International Centre for Sport Security. He has agents in the field and he’s really trying to find out who these players are.
Throughout this whole issue, I always felt like “I’m crazy.” Everybody who is in a position of power within the game seems to ignore, belittle, or excuse the issue. And Chris is really one of a few people who speaks in a logical manner about it, which is to say “this should not be in the game, this should not exist, there should be zero tolerance.”
How were you able to track down some of these figures who have evaded international authorities for years?
There were certainly plenty of guys that I tried to get to, who I couldn’t. It was really a matter of working as hard as I could at it. The match fixers themselves are by their very nature gregarious, social, and boastful. Especially since Wilson Perumal was arrested in 2011, his main motivation was to exact revenge on the people who turned him in. I was fortunate to speak with him and some others.
For a period of 10 to 15 years, these guys ran roughshod over the game, they profited wildly, they manipulated the game on all levels, and I think they got the sense that they were invulnerable. I think that’s changing a bit, as there’s more attention on this issue.
Given everything you’ve learned, do you think it’s possible to eliminate match fixing?
It’s a very difficult thing to solve. It’s not the fault of FIFA and it’s not the fault of soccer that the game has been targeted. FIFA is not a policing agency, but they communicate to the world a very permissive attitude. On an ethical level, this gives the impression to people who are directly and indirectly involved with the game, “It’s ok if we bend the rules a little bit.”
They can get out in front of the issue instead of trying to distance themselves from it. Repeatedly, when national federations have appealed to FIFA, FIFA time and again have told these people “it’s not our responsibility. You have to petition your local police department.”
Is FIFA doing enough to prevent match fixing? Dismissing Eaton’s reforms seemed like a harsh step.
As far as I understand, they never came back to [the proposed reforms]. They just never instituted anything.
FIFA is the equivalent of the person behind the counter who says “Don’t ask me, I just work here.” They behave exactly how you’d expect them to considering their character. But that’s not what you would hope to have in a body that is supposed to look out for the welfare of the game. The priority is simple profits and personal enrichment.
Nothing ever happens. The people who govern the game of soccer just don’t care.
Will there be matches fixed this summer at the World Cup?
I hope not, that would be really depressing if it did happen. FIFA doesn’t want to see that, and they’ve taken precautions, but the head of security said “We need to watch out for the final games in the group stage.” Organized crime is going to be attracted to these games.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was going to be fixing at the World Cup. As of yet there hasn’t been a verified fixed game at the World Cup, I guess we’ll just wait have to wait and see.
Is there a way for smaller nations to avoid the predatory practices of fixers? Can FIFA or the regional federations help them and provide more oversight?
This crime needs to be combatted as a single, global crime that occurs in many different countries. It can’t be addressed on a country by country basis. Soccer extends across different economies, currencies, languages, ways of doing business, criminal groups. It’s almost impossible to govern the game on an international level.
So how do you combat it? This problem needs to be approached very much like problems of money laundering, drug trafficking, human trafficking…there are very experienced, well-intentioned people tackling these problems.
Does Sportradar serve as a deterrent? Is there a way to measure its success?
It has had a positive effect. The knock on Sportradar is the data that they produce initiates a retrospective investigation. While that’s true, they can track these players as they move to different clubs, and then they watch those games, and then they’re able to contact the other association.
Sportsradar have reached out to clients and a lot of these federations and clubs have largely preferred to handle that stuff in-house rather than have a public scandal. The other thing is the necessity of engendering transnational cooperation between policing in different countries. Once the fixer leaves one jurisdiction for another, it’s like the old days before the FBI. He’s free again. We need to find a way to make cops in different countries cooperate with each other. Without it, we’re not going to solve this thing
Is the European Union actually aiding all the fixing? It seems like the majority of arrests made are of very low level people. Are the laws insulating those in charge?
You can keep chopping off the guy at the bottom and he’ll just be replaced over and over again. There are people who are involved in this issue and long ago recognized the need to cut off the head of the snake. The problem is the people at the very top are not involved in match fixing, these people are involved in legal/illegal gambling. These are nameless, faceless people, most of them in Asia. They’re sitting at the top of these pyramids of millions and billions of dollars.
The only way this is going to go away is if you identify punish prosecute and convict people at the very top who are pulling the strings. Right now there is a concerted effort to do that.
Do you worry that, with the globalization of the NBA especially, that fixing could infiltrate American sports (especially basketball)?
I guarantee you that some of the people that are at the forefront of fixing soccer games internationally are already attempting to, or have already fixed NBA games.
It’s not about how popular the game is; you want to simplify it. The more money that is bet on a game, the more fraudulent betting you can hide within the overall pot, the more attracted organized crime is to manipulating the game.
It’s naïve for us to think in the US that this is not our problem too. It’s a global market, and it’s naïve to think that any American league is immune to this crime that is destroying leagues all around the world. The US sports leagues and the FBI are ill-informed about it. They’re focused on Las Vegas. It’s interesting how globalization has boomeranged back to us. Because we’re so insular, the people who should know about these things happen often don’t. In a lot of ways we’re sitting ducks.
Do you think your background made you look at the issue of match fixing differently than others?
My perspective was an American one. What if this was occurring in the NFL? Could that happen? American sports are not immune to fixing. There are some real differences.
If the New York Giants found out that their games were being manipulated, how do you think Roger Goodell would handle that? The commissioner is empowered to hand down punishments. Soccer, on the other hand, is not really governed by anybody.
All of these games are listed for betting online, and many of them generate enormous amounts of money. While FIFA—who I think should be taking responsibility for this issue—is not paying attention to these games, organized crime certainly is.
Given that they’re both advisory bodies with a host of internal issues, how similar do you think FIFA is to the NCAA?
The guys at the NCAA are not lining their pockets in the same way people at FIFA are. It’s egregious what goes on at that organization [FIFA]. The fact the FIFA has all these internal corruption issues prevents them from fully addressing match fixing. They’re worried about the business in the short term whereas match fixing is a serious long-term problem. They’re just kicking the can down the road.
Any response to the May 27 Europol statement that match fixing is not a “major problem?”
This is emblematic of the way these agencies approach match fixing. This guy Wainwright, they came out about a year ago with this big grandstanding conference. They’re just trying to do two things. They’re trying to take credit for having uncovered this “scourge of the game.” But at the same time they’re trying to say “it’s not a big problem.” The level of tolerance should be zero tolerance. Why would you pay a bunch of money to go watch something that’s fake?
The reason that that guy on the field thinks it’s OK to throw that ball into the net is because Wainwright says it’s OK. What he is really saying is “I know it’s a problem, but it’s OK.”
As the 2014 FIFA World Cup moves into the Quarterfinals, a lot of the problems with the infrastructure of world football are becoming serious topics of discussion. We’ve heard a lot recently about the bribery allegations surrounding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with many members of FIFA’s executive team vocally decrying the alleged behavior and vowing to do whatever is necessary to get to the source and eliminate the problem.
But what about match fixing? Forrest’s book details FIFA’s extensive knowledge of the problem, yet soccer’s governing body seems entirely inert. To say it doesn’t exist is foolish; one needs only to look at the pre-World Cup Nigeria-Scotland friendly to see that match fixing can happen at any time, on any level.
You can pick up The Big Fix: The Hunt For The Match-Fixers Bringing Down World Soccer at Amazon, and can find more information about the author at brettforrest.com. Follow Brett on Twitter @brett_forrest.