LONDON – Just under three years ago I received a call from a contact who knew people in a side of life that is at best described as shady. “Fancy making a few quid?” he asked, and I knew his reply was not going to be legal.
I was told to bet on Forest Green Rovers vs. Grays Athletic in the Blue Square Premier. Rovers would lead at halftime but lose the match — the odds were 22/1. I thanked him for the call and did nothing, believing such information to be pie in the sky. When I checked on the result, Rovers did indeed lead 1-0 at halftime and they lost the game 2-1.
Bookmakers, who have an antenna for unusual betting patterns that makes radar seem obsolete, had suspended betting on the match, saying the betting was “the strangest they had ever seen” with up to £50,000 ($78,600) in bets or attempted bets by hundreds of individuals in an attempted £1 million sting.
A Football Association commission looked at whether it could prosecute anyone for the offense of “cheating” as defined by Section 42 of the Gambling Act 2005, but concluded it was impossible to link an individual bet to a specific incident that fixed the game.
Bookmakers eventually paid out to winning punters a year later. While the F.A. commission may have found insufficient evidence, which included bets placed by residents at some players’ addresses, I was less convinced there had not been some sort of “arrangement.”
It is the only occasion in my career where I had what amounted to evidence that a match had a strong whiff of a pre-agreement. Earlier this week, Europol said 425 individuals were suspected of being involved in attempting to fix 380 matches in Europe. It will be interesting to see how many convictions arise from the ongoing investigations because obtaining proof can be virtually impossible. A team can draw 3-3 after being 0-3 in the 80th minute, which may look suspicious, but in fact is no more than a superb comeback.
The biggest gambling markets are those in Southeast Asia. Bookmakers tell me tennis and snooker are the sports that cause them most worries because in individual sports it is easier to manipulate a result and referees and umpires play no significant role. Team sports are more difficult because bribing one or even three players would not necessarily guarantee what would be required and it becomes obvious if a goalkeeper allows the ball to go through his legs a few times.
Much money is made not on the outcome or scoreline of matches, but more specific bets, like the first throw-in, which is the easiest to arrange and causes no suspicious eyebrows to be raised, or the number of red cards. I know one manager who changed his team’s penalty-taker 10 minutes before the kickoff and gave the job to a player who was 25-1 to score the first goal. It was still a huge gamble, but his bet of £100 came up trumps.
European referees who officiate UEFA and FIFA matches now earn up to £100,000 a year and would need an unrealistic bribe to put their career at risk, plus a possible jail sentence.
However, in the 1980s, referees and linesmen from Eastern Europe were ripe pickings and would often be lavishly entertained by the home club before a European Cup game, which included the company of very attractive girls. These days, match officials are met at the airport by the referees delegate from the host country who is with them at all times before the kickoff.
At the match-fixing trial in Bochum in May 2011, two Croatians were jailed for five years after confessing to fixing more than 20 matches, including a meaningless 2010 World Cup qualifier between Liechtenstein and Finland. In exchange for $52,000, Bosnian referee Novo Panic agreed to ensure two goals would be scored in the second half.
The match ended 1-1 with both goals coming in the second half. Liechtenstein took the lead with a “clean” goal, Finland, unaware of the motive behind the referee’s generosity, equalized with a penalty that was, putting it mildly, highly dubious. These are the sort of games that worry bookmakers, those with nothing at stake and away from the spotlight.
THE BEST way to assess a player’s worth can be to ask supporters of rival clubs what they think of him. Even Manchester United fans have a respect, albeit grudging, for Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, 35, who this week announced he will retire from playing at the end of the season.
Carragher is a Liverpool legend having made 723 appearances in 16 years. United supporters can admire his loyalty to one club just as Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs became modern day icons at Old Trafford. Along with Steven Gerrard, Carragher has been the heartbeat of Liverpool for a decade, a player who made the most of his ability and set the right example to all around him.
For Carragher, Liverpool is not a football club, it is a way of life. He was never tempted to join another club because he could not pull on any other jersey. He will sit comfortably with Anfield greats such as Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Ian Callaghan, Graeme Souness and Emlyn Hughes.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.