Match-fixing: More regulation needed
OK, so at some point in the past two weeks (at what point -- as you'll see -- is crucially important) a convicted match-fixer named Wilson Raj Perumal decided to chat with a German journalist from the magazine Der Spiegel.
They chose to do so on Facebook (possibly because it's still 2009 where they live, or maybe because Snapchat was unavailable). In the course of the conversation, according to Der Spiegel, Perumal claimed that the Cameroon squad at the World Cup had "seven bad apples in it" and that it would throw its group game against Croatia 4-0. Not only that, but one of their players would get sent off in the first half.
Lo and behold, that's exactly what happened. Croatia won 4-0 and Alex Song got sent off in the first half. Der Spiegel, convinced it had a scoop, runs the story, and the Cameroon FA decided to open an investigation.
Had Perumal once again returned to his devious ways? Remember, this is the guy who claimed that his rigged games helped two countries qualify for the 2010 World Cup. This is the man who, during 30 years, has worked with a variety of Asian betting syndicates to fix hundreds of games.
Not at all, according to Perumal.
Speaking via his book publishers (I know, weird isn't it? You almost wonder if it isn't some kind of publicity stunt), he told Britain's Daily Telegraph that he was a changed man.
He insisted that the chat with the German journalist -- which he had believed was off the record anyway -- was merely speculation on his part and featured a guess that there were indeed "seven bad apples" in the Cameroon squad. He said he had no knowledge or evidence of any fix in the game, other than the fact that it seemed plausible.
Perumal also categorically denied that he had predicted the score or that a man would be sent off. And, just to be on the safe side, he included screen shots of the Facebook conversation, which appear to show that it took place on June 21, three days after the Croatia game.
Either someone isn't telling the truth, or there's been some kind of massive miscommunication. Both sides are standing by their story.
That's the thing about match-fixing: people know and they don't know. They say and they don't say. Everybody is guilty until they can prove otherwise and, because you can't prove innocence because you can't prove a negative -- well, draw your own conclusions.
It's a little bit like doping in football. The fact that there is no evidence of widespread, large-scale, systematic use of performance-enhancing substances is taken by some as definitive evidence of just one thing: We're not looking hard enough.
When hundreds of millions of dollars change hands on loosely regulated betting exchanges in places like Macau or Hong Kong and we see bizarre goals and outcomes, the potential for crime is obvious. The trick is proving it.
Cash can't be traced and far too much football business is conducted via wads of bills (including the payment of bonuses in the case of Ghana's World Cup side, as anybody who saw John Boye kiss his roll of cash will confirm.) Surveillance requires massive law enforcement resources (plus, in many jurisdictions, court warrants) and the simple truth is that police often prioritize catching murderers, rapists, terrorists and drug dealers -- which, frankly, is understandable.
There is a silver lining here. It may be difficult to find the folks who fix games, but it's becoming increasingly easier to identify which matches are suspicious. Gamblers and bookies have become so good at determining what the odds and prices on a specific game should be that they can fairly efficiently track suspicious movements and betting patterns. We've become a lot better at monitoring markets so we at least know when a crime may have been committed. Further, we often know in real time.
FIFA said Wednesday that their experts confirm there were no suspicious betting patterns in the Cameroon vs. Croatia game. Various other sources -- including a professional betting syndicate and an independent monitoring firm -- confirmed this. Now, it may well be that the volume of bets on this game was so big that the money wagered by the hypothetical fixers wasn't enough to generate a suspicious betting pattern. Or that perhaps bets were placed on an exchange that is so underground it's not even being monitored. Heck, it could be two secretive billionaires trying to put one over the other.
But if that's the case, you wonder why go through all the trouble if you're not going to cash in?
FIFA have asked Der Spiegel to hand in whatever evidence it has. You'd hope it has more than just the Facebook conversation. Again, it's possible that the screen grabs that Perumal submitted were doctored somehow and he did, in fact, disclose this information before the match. After all, he's a convicted match-fixer and fraudster. If that's the case, we'll find out because at the very least, you'd expect Der Spiegel to have their own screen grabs and record of the conversation.
As long as folks bet on games -- particularly at anonymous, high liquid, lightly regulated Asian exchanges -- there will be a risk of games being fixed. At least now we have a fairly clear idea of when it happens and the hope is that as guys like Perumal -- who is now working with authorities and testifying against his former betting syndicate cohorts in a trial in Hungary -- turn state's evidence, we'll increase our knowledge base and the tools we have to fight back.
And if you take a very long view from a laissez faire perspective, this is one situation where the market will ultimately fix itself. If games are fixed, then folks will grow tired of losing money and stop betting. At that point, there will be no liquidity and no point in fixing games. That's why betting exchanges and bookmakers are -- or ought to be -- among the first to collaborate with the monitoring agencies to identify anything suspicious and with the authorities to share information.
Ultimately, what you need is more regulation and transparency. Then again, that applies to so many different aspects of football.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.