How Do You Fix a Soccer Game?   

With a runner and a few beards.

BLACKBURN, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 17: Robbie Savage of Blackburn takes a dive under pressure from Sylvain Distin of Manchester City during the Barclays Premiership game between Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City at Ewood Park on September 17, 2006 in Blackburn, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
How often do soccer players “take a dive” to throw a game?

Photograph by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images.

Ninety-three soccer players and team officials were indicted in Turkey on Friday for match-fixing. FIFA authorities are investigating the national teams of Cuba, Grenada, and El Salvador for the same thing. European officials are trying to squelch speculation that a couple of wild results in the prestigious Champions League tournament on Wednesday were the result of a fix. How do you rig a soccer game?

Buy off a star player and let him deal with his teammates. In The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime, journalist Declan Hill described the shady world of match-fixing. Fixers hire a “runner”—a local go-between with connections in the league. He’s often a former athlete looking to augment his post-playing-career income. He identifies a top player who is susceptible to a buyoff. Maybe the player has gambling debts of his own, or perhaps he’s going through an expensive divorce. The runner passes him a lump of cash and promises more if he gets the desired result. If the player fails, however, the fixers will come after him. The player is then responsible for distributing the money among teammates who are willing to play along. It usually takes four or five players to ensure a loss. Fixers sometimes try to buy the collusion of referees, but it’s a less reliable strategy since there’s only so much a ref can do to influence a game without being obvious.

In order to make money on the deal, the fixer has to make huge bets. They usually work through the Asian gambling markets, which deal in far greater volumes than any sports betting networks in Europe or the United States. (There are more deals per day on Asian sports betting markets than on the New York Stock Exchange.) But even in those markets large bets may attract the attention of watchdogs like Betradar, and eventually the authorities. Fixers hide from scrutiny by hiring “beards” to place many smaller bets on their behalf. (In the 19th century, fixers actually wore beards to the betting windows to conceal their identities.) Then, they start a whispering campaign that the fix is in, but that the game is rigged in the opposite direction. The false rumors bring in bets against their position, making the overall betting patterns appear more reasonable.

How common is this scam? It’s not clear. There’s plenty of evidence that Asian fixers regularly rig games in smaller countries and the lower-tier leagues of major countries. Hill claims that a smaller number of games have been fixed in the World Cup, major European top-flight divisions, and the Champions League as well. But Hill’s book is controversial, and some soccer-watchers aren’t so sure that this is a major problem in the top leagues.

A different sort of fix, however, is common. As in any league sport, games at the end of the season might only matter to one of the two teams involved. Disinterested players have conceded games to their opponents, sometimes in rather obvious fashion. It’s often done as a matter of professional courtesy, and no one has to tell the players what to do. But bribery isn’t unheard of. In 1993, for example, Marseille was caught paying opponent Valenciennes to roll over.

The term “match-fixing” is slightly overused. The most famous case of soccer corruption of the last few years was the Italian Calciopoli scandal of 2006. Juventus and other big clubs made it known that they could harm the careers of unfriendly referees, and even bought SIM cards for off-the-record conversations with refs. While it’s often referred to as “match-fixing,” these practices are closer to influence peddling—trying to tilt the close calls in your favor.

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Explainer thanks author Declan Hill and Gabriele Marcotti, world soccer columnist for the Wall Street Journal.