Sports Nut

The Ball Was Crooked

How soccer’s powers that be infiltrated an international match-fixing conspiracy.

This article is excerpted from The Big Fix: The Hunt for the Match-Fixers Bringing Down Soccer by Brett Forrest, out now from William Morrow.

Sharjah was a short drive up the road from Dubai, but it felt like a world away, a face of the United Arab Emirates that most Westerners never saw. Sharjah didn’t look like a place where someone could get rich overnight. This made it a fitting location for the criminals who had infiltrated the game of soccer. Their specialty was illusion, and they were about to pull off their latest ruse, one that would bring a lucrative return after just 90 minutes.

The match set for that day—March 26, 2011—was a friendly between the national teams of Kuwait and Jordan, the sort of game that took place hundreds of times each year around the world. National team coaches often looked upon these contests as little more than vigorous practice. Interested criminal groups from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, however, considered them the cornerstones of an extensive commercial enterprise.

This game was just a tiny skirmish in a gathering war. On one side were organized criminal syndicates, which were making hundreds of millions of dollars—if not billions—by manipulating game results. On the other were soccer administrators, who were beginning to accept that match-fixing was a fundamental threat to the most popular game in the world.

FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, had received information that a collection of known criminals had arranged to manipulate the outcome of the Sharjah match. This was no great surprise—FIFA officials were all too familiar with inflated final scores, questionable penalty calls, and strange betting patterns. What was novel about this Sharjah match was the fact that FIFA, directed by a new security chief, was operating a clandestine investigation. The time had come to take action.

It had been a challenge to gather reliable information about the match, even for FIFA, which had sanctioned the competition. Some sources even listed the game as having been canceled. That’s what it looked like to the FIFA operatives as they passed through the wide-open gates of Khalid Bin Mohammed Stadium. Nobody was selling tickets. The stands were empty. There were no TV cameras or production vehicles.

Eventually, the players filtered into the stadium, as did a few fans. The FIFA operatives took notice of a couple of men on the edge of the playing field. They recognized the men, one from an Emirati promotional company and another from a similar firm in Egypt—these two had helped arrange the match. They also spotted who they believed to be the architects of this fix: a pair of Singaporeans, part of a notorious group that operated unchecked in dozens of countries.

The Sharjah fix had originated in the mind of the world’s most prolific match-fixer, a man of mysterious movements who had manipulated hundreds of matches in more than 60 countries, making untold sums for the syndicate in Asia. But the syndicate had betrayed him. Police had discovered details of the Sharjah fix sketched on a piece of paper lying in the fixer’s hotel room in a Finnish town along the Arctic Circle. This information had led FIFA to Sharjah.

The purpose of match-fixing was betting fraud. Fixers compromised players, directing them to allow the other team to score, and bribed referees to distribute red cards and penalty kicks. The syndicate placed bets based on the timing of these planned events. The fixers defrauded both the bookmaker, who was always one step behind them, and the fan, who believed that what he was watching was real. The players, too, were often coerced into participating. When play began between Kuwait and Jordan, activity on the international betting market revealed that the fix was in.

Criminal match-fixers have manipulated soccer matches in every corner of the world—roughly half of the national and regional associations affiliated with FIFA have reported fixing incidents. Gambling is to blame. The market in sports betting has ballooned in the last decade, with the Internet allowing anyone within arm’s length of a computer to bet on the most insignificant of matches.

For established fixers, international soccer has been a free zone of activity, a territory of endless opportunities for manipulation. The total number of national and professional soccer teams worldwide exceeds 10,000. Multiply this number by the amount of players per team, then add referees, club officials, and federation administrators, and the entry points for a match-fixer are functionally endless. International soccer has no centralized control, no disciplinary commissioner. It is a loosely administered network of different languages, customs, laws, and currencies that connects the world, yet barely hangs together. This variance gives the game its charm. It also allows dark motivations to flourish.

In the 23rd minute of the Kuwait–Jordan match, the ball ricocheted off the hand of an unwitting Jordanian player, leading the referee to make a questionable penalty call. Kuwait converted. The FIFA operatives looked at the Singaporean fixers in the crowd, but their body language revealed nothing. It didn’t have to. The evidence was in the numbers.

There are several ways to fix a match. One of the most popular is to wager on the total number of goals scored. If a bookie lists the over-under at 2.5, and a fixer bets on the over, he will direct his compromised players or referee to make certain that at least three goals are scored.

This fixing syndicate operated on the in-game gambling market, which allows for betting while a match is in progress. At the opening of the Sharjah match, 188Bet, one of the world’s largest online bookmakers, began taking a high number of bets on the over. With 90 minutes remaining in which Kuwait and Jordan could score a combined three goals, 188Bet calculated the chance of three or more scores at 50 percent. Paradoxically, after 18 minutes of scoreless match time, 188Bet now listed the chance of three or more goals as 53 percent, even though there was less time in which to score them. Why?

The bookies at 188Bet had moved the odds in reaction to the overwhelming number of over wagers that were pouring in. It is the bookmaker’s goal to level his book, taking equivalent action on either side of a proposition to reduce his exposure. A bookie understands that his exposure is highest when he is taking a large amount of action on an illogical proposition. He knows that the match is fixed, as the bookies at 188Bet surely understood as they calculated in-game odds for the Sharjah match.

In the 38th minute, the referee called another penalty. This one appeared legitimate, as a Kuwaiti defender tackled a Jordanian forward in the box. The goalkeeper for Kuwait saved the ensuing kick. However, the linesman flagged him for early movement and declared that Jordan should be allowed to take the penalty kick again. Jordan scored on the retake. At the half, the match was tied 1–1. With 45 minutes to play, all the syndicate needed to win its bets was one more goal. Then something happened. 

The FIFA investigators watched the man from the Emirati promotional company climb the stairs of the VIP stands. He conferred with the Singaporean fixers. As FIFA later discovered, the match referee had received a tip that the contest was under observation. As the players returned to the field, the Singaporeans left the stadium.

Midway through the second half, the score was still 1–1. Suddenly, in the 71st minute, the betting action reversed. The syndicate was now piling up money on the other side, cancelling its previous bets. The fix was off.

The match finished in a 1–1 draw. Based on the chatter that FIFA’s security team collected in Singapore, the syndicate lost roughly $500,000 on the Sharjah match. Never before had FIFA conducted a counter-fixing operation in real time. Asian fixers and their European partners had operated freely for a decade. Now everything was about to change.

This article is excerpted from The Big Fix: The Hunt for the Match-Fixers Bringing Down Soccer by Brett Forrest, out now from William Morrow.