Match-fixing pays underpaid players and finances clubs, football insider says

In the 2012-2013 season, some €50 million and €20 million in bets were placed on Premier League and First Division games, respectively.

Maltese football and its unstable financing model is pushing the game straight into the hands of betting syndicates who have found an attractive, if illegal, way of financing clubs and players’ demands for higher earnings.

It will be a tall order for the Malta Football Association’s integrity officer, Franz Tabone, to bring some goodwill into the game, says a football insider who worked on a Maltese premier league team’s committee, on condition of anonymity.

“Today I am more convinced that almost every game in Maltese football is tainted by gambling, legal and illegal,” he said. “With €70 million in regulated bets, and another €70 million in illegal bets, you have to ask who could possibly be interested enough in Maltese football to place these bets.”

Since 2012, the MFA has been using Swiss surveillance specialists Sportradar’s live betting analysis software to flag suspicious betting patterns. The MFA says that 32 out of 300 Premier League and Division One games were flagged as suspicious in the 2012-13 season, falling to 12 in the following season after the FA conducted its ‘Say No to Match Fixing’ campaign. Some €50 million and €20 million in bets were placed on Premier League and First Division games, respectively.

But the insider claims Maltese football is fertile ground for match-fixing: a combination exists of illegal betting syndicates who ‘own’ underpaid footballers, and who also partner up with Asian bookies to place bets from outside Malta.

“You have to consider that a good deal of Maltese footballers are part-timers who could be paid something like €1,000 a month. The syndicates boost their income. And it doesn’t stop there. Committee members, even club employees, can use betting revenues to finance the club’s operations and players’ salaries.”

It works out relatively easily. Perhaps the most obvious bet is to secure a particular result before the first half of the match: it takes very particular bets, carrying high odds, and whose actualisation is imperceptible to the keenest of football supporters.

“The club’s inside-man is tasked with convincing, say, the goalkeeper and two defenders that if they can concede two goals before the first half, they will get a handsome pay-off. Who would suspect anything if a top-flight team is 2-1 down in the first half? It’s quite inconspicuous. When you finally get paid €1,000 for juking that first half only, when you usually earn that money in a month, you can see why match-fixing is rife.”

Even club presidents see match-fixing as a reality that they could choose to either succumb to, or pay for, says the insider. “Crucial matches, league deciders, trophy finals, will always be prone to last-minute match-fixing. You get tipped off on players who will throw the match, and then the club president either scares them into submission or match the offer made to them. In the end, it will be either the money or the glory. But the club will always pay the price.”

The insider even offers up the names of those who run the four major syndicates. Unsurprisingly some are former convicts. “The police should know that their conspicuous status symbols – top-range Mercedes and BMWs – are financed illicitly. It’s obvious to anyone.”

Asiagate everywhere

The problem is not limited to Malta, but to other low-key football leagues whose stadia are scarcely populated by supporters, like Australia, Taiwan and the Philippines. But online betting allows gamblers all around the world to place bets on any sport, thanks to betting coordination between different countries’ syndicates.

In Australia, the Victoria Police Commissioner told a recent ASADA enquiry into football match-fixing earlier this year there was a “significant increase” in offshore betting on the A-League, mainly in Asia.

One Hong Kong bookmaker alone took bets worth $49 million on the December 2012 A-League game involving Victoria and Adelaide – $7 million more than placed with the same bookie on that weekend for the Manchester United versus Manchester City derby in the English Premier League.

Or in Zimbabwe, where footballers are grossly underpaid in the impoverished country, Premier Soccer League players Thomas Magorimbo of Dynamos, Harare City skipper David Kutyauripo and suspended Warriors defender Guthrie Zhokinyu who confessed to being regulars at a local sports betting shop in Harare: they are so underpaid that they can’t afford to support their families, which is why they rely on such extra earnings.

Eighty Zimbabwean footballers were suspended because of alleged involvement in Asian betting syndicates linked to match-fixing between 2007 and 2009. The Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) set up an independent ethics committee to investigate the alleged fixing, which it believes took place when the national team played in Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. The games were not part of any competition. In fact, it is suspected they were arranged specifically for the purpose of betting.

Frustration at the top

Like many of the ‘big men’ of Maltese football, entrepreneur Victor Sciriha used both his personal fortune and club sponsorship to turn Valletta FC into the “the most financially healthy club on this island”.

In 2011, he said, it was one of the few clubs that paid players their salaries at the end of each month without fail. The former Marsaxlokk FC president masterminded bankrupt Valletta’s return to glory but now, a string of losses has frustrated Sciriha so much he will step down from club president, complaining that despite being paid on time, his players are not showing enough determination.

“My enthusiasm for the game has gone,” Sciriha said. “I don’t think there are many sane people out there who are ready to take on this massive financial burden,” he recently told The Times.

But was his frustration about Maltese football also informed by the reality of match-fixing, MaltaToday asked?

“How long can you keep pouring money out of your own pocket and see certain things going on in the pitch? It is not worth it, in the sense that there are too many coincidences in football,” he replied.

He says match-fixing afflicts football globally. “In Malta it is widespread to a certain extent [but] not all clubs are involved. Still, match-fixing exists everywhere. It’s a plague afflicting football the world over, and I don’t know how possible it is to eradicate it completely. But there must be some effort to at least try. The police and the MFA must do something. Surely, the police have the necessary tools to at least be aware of certain things.”

MFA chief executive Bjorn Vassallo knows that only a pro-active police operation can break the omertà in the game. “The police should set up a law enforcement unit that deals specifically with sports corruption and investigate through phone-tapping and monitoring the transfer of money,” Vassallo told MaltaToday in a recent interview. “When I suggested this idea to [ex-police commissioner] Peter Paul Zammit, he said that he didn’t have enough money and resources.”

The integrity hunter

Part of MFA integrity officer Franz Tabone’s mission has been to educate club officials, players, public officers and even students to the reality of match-fixing. But even in his ‘integrity tour’ in which he spoke to as many stakeholders in the game as he could, gamblers included, he knows that not everyone is prepared to blow the whistle. “Some may be caught in a trap by ill meaning individuals within their patch,” he recently wrote in his newsletter.

Tabone remains at odds with those who are trying to seek a viable investment in Maltese football’s ailing fortunes. “There is no way presently that our football can produce any viability on ‘investment’, whatever anybody says,” he wrote in another of his newsletters.

“I sincerely hope that one day clubs will be self-sufficient, make profits and this will be thrown back at me. It is this scenario that has been giving some headaches. Clubs will resort to any offer to see their team reach a competitive level or survival and are blind to the pitfalls of it all.”