Conference calls for greater measures to tackle dangers of match-fixing

A conference aiming to 'Stop The Fix, Fix The Threat' highlighted the danger posed by match-fixing and sports betting as elements of cross-border organised crime

More measures are needed to address the danger posed by match-fixing and sports betting as elements of cross-border organised crime, prominent figures in the sports and gaming field agreed today.

This emerged as a central theme at a conference dealing with corruption in sport, 'Stop The Fix, Fix The Threat', organised by the Nationalist Party.

“Times have changed and today we are talking about serious organised crime on the same level as drug, prostitution and child pornography. This is cross-border organised crime,” Dominic Micallef, Chief Officer, Enforcement, at the Malta Gaming Authority said.

It is not only a national problem, but there were cases involving Maltese athletes, masterminded by foreign individuals. Micallef recently attended a Rome conference where the Italian police explained how the Mafia, Ndrangheta and Camorra had infiltrated the Italian leagues, “especially the minor ones,” he said.

“It’s not just a player getting bought off, but an entire criminal network whose aim is making money,” he said, suggesting that match-fixing should be given as much prominence as other crimes like human trafficking and drug trafficking.

Bjorn Vassallo, FIFA Director for European Member Associations echoed Micallef, giving a grim reality check. “Football reflects the value and tendencies of the society its in.”

 “Romantic football as we remember it is finished. It is now an economy that generates billions…corruption is simply a behaviour that exists outside the boundaries of football or sport.”

Corruption in sport is becoming more commonplace around the globe, he said, adding that Malta was a “speck” near what is happening elsewhere. There is also collaboration between football and organised crime and lax enforcement didn’t help, he said.

“The beauty of sport lies in the uncertainty of the result.”

If you accept a bribe once, you will be placed under enormous psychological, social and financial pressure and will find it very hard to get out of having to do it again, Vassallo said.

€50 billion were bet on sports in the past year and the illegal betting market is ten times bigger, explained Vassallo. “More prevention and education is needed,” he said, arguing that those involved could not “sit on their hands” in view of the “rampant and blatant” corruption in sport. He thanked both sides of Parliament for their efforts at bringing the situation to heel.

A structure offering effective protection to whistleblowers is needed, says sports lawyer Robert Dingli. “Whistleblowing is part of integrity in sport. Information must be given for action to be taken and a means of support is needed for these people.”

Sport psychologist Adele Muscat reminded that there were two sides to this coin. “Young athletes involved in match fixing are also victims, there is a lot of damage. “ Irregular pay dates only served to increase the risk of match-fixing said.

David Azzopardi, Chairperson of the Malta School Sports Federation said that money was the reason that values must be strong.

“In 25 years teaching at school and football, you often find that the nursery coach doesn’t share the values you have imbued in the players…It’s a problem throughout society: do I stick to my values or get rich quick?”

If our coaches aren’t going to educate athletes properly and say I’m happier with our team losing a game with dignity, our children are going to follow coaches who look at money and the short term gains.

Sportsmalta CEO Chris Bonett said that organised crime networks saw sport as a soft target for increasing their profits. He called for the setting up of a sports integrity unit who works in the interests of all the stakeholders.

Betting culture is the target of the organised crime said Europol expert Pablo Salazar Mendias, but many countries don’t have a dedicated law enforcement for sports crime.

“We have to increase the intelligence picture of the crime groups and increase the level of information sharing.”

Malta Football Association Integrity officer Franz Tabone sounded almost despondent.

“Match-fixing is very much alive it is an intrinsic part of our culture.” Clubs have been infiltrated by “dubious individuals,” and corruption was the order of the day, Tabone said.

“It's not only about betting, but betting is easier if the scene is already compromised. The problem is larger than you think.”

Legal changes are useless without enforcement, he said. “Unless it’s enforced, the law is just a piece of paper. You might as well include capital punishment.”

“If we carry on like this we will see the destruction of our football,” he warned.

Ryan Callus, Opposition Spokesperson for Youth and Sport emphasised that sports corruption is a cross-border challenge. He agreed that Malta should join the Europol project which helps member states coordinate better with other states in the fight against sports corruption and praised local legal developments.  “You can get away with it once or twice, but if you’re caught, under this law, you will have lasting consequences.”

He knew the difficulties faced by players who blew the whistle on corruption, who have been forced to change club.

“We must increase awareness of the law in our athletes. Ignorance is the worst thing.”

The central issue is the corruption of Maltese youths, he said. “It is the perfect recipe for the failed State of tomorrow.”

He seconded the call for increased enforcement

To athletes, he said, “you might be scared, but the law as it stands means it pays to speak out.”