Of all English clubs, Liverpool and Manchester United have the biggest following around the world. Their fans revel in past glories but few know there is also a dark side to their club’s history: both were involved in the highest-level fix we know about in English football. It happened 100 years ago, on April 2 1915.
It was Good Friday. Then, as now, the Easter programme was crucial for settling issues such as which clubs were to be relegated. Liverpool was safe from the drop, despite having had a mediocre season (Everton won the League). But for Manchester United, the points at stake were vital to survival if it was to finish ahead of Chelsea and Tottenham at the bottom.
United got the points but not – it transpired later – fairly. Four Liverpool and three United players had agreed to manufacture a result of 2-0. They all bet on that exact score at 7-1 odds and worked determinedly to secure it, including missing a penalty.
The bookies were displeased. The players were found out, named and shamed. A subsequent inquiry gave them lifetime bans – and all but one of them then volunteered for the Western Front. The survivors were reinstated by football on their return in recognition of their war service. But the knowledge of their betrayal of sport could not be wiped away.
Different types of fixing
A century on, contemporary football is beset with fixing allegations. In the year to June, 2014, there were investigations in 70 countries as noted in a recent Interpol sponsored book on sports integrity.
Fixing can take many different forms. As with the Big Fix of 1915, the main motivation can be “sporting” (one of the clubs needed saving from relegation). Collusion by both sides in a sporting contest is most likely when, as in 1915, there is asymmetry in the rewards for the outcome. If winning matters only for one, it may be allowed to win as a favour or in return for reciprocating in future matches. This became notorious in sumo wrestling as studied by economists Duggan and Levitt.
There may also be payment involved, such that one club buys a result from another – a practice compellingly exposed by Declan Hill as routine in Russian football. And even if the initial purpose is sporting, there is often parallel betting activity. It seems that those with inside information that the event is to be fixed cannot resist (as with our footballers from 1915) winning some money. Where the manipulation involves an explicit payment, it may actually be planned to be funded by relevant bets.
Another key feature of the 1915 Big Fix was it being “home-made” – where the relevant bets were placed by the players themselves or their families. This sort of fix has never gone away. Fixes are relatively easy to detect in well-regulated and well-monitored betting environments such as France (and Britain) because the money is typically wagered in local betting outlets.
Third parties and criminal involvement
Very much harder to control is fixing where players are paid by third parties to manipulate matches so that syndicates can make betting gains. Although this sort of fix also has a long pedigree, things here have moved on to a higher level from 100 years ago. Football is now targeted by international criminals whose operations are on an industrial scale, with betting in barely regulated markets far from where the match is taking place. Conspiracies are therefore hard to detect and many have come to light fortuitously as a result of police investigating other gang activities such as prostitution.
This was the case in the Bochum trial. The Bochum case was the first of several over the past five years to highlight the astonishing scale of contemporary match fixing. Criminals from Croatia, living in Germany, were found guilty of fixing more than 300 games in 12 European countries (plus Canada).
From evidence here and in later cases, we know something of how such rings operate. They use several methods to fix, including buying failing clubs and then transferring in their own corrupt players. But most commonly they pay defenders to concede goals because it is hard to detect whether their mistakes are deliberate.
Any level of football may be targeted but most often it is second-tier leagues where player wages are relatively low but large stakes can still be placed. Bets are normally on either the match result or the total number of goals (side bets such as on red cards do not feature as stakes that can be placed are too low). Almost invariably, those bets are in illegal markets.
Match fixing is especially prevalent in Asia (and isn’t confined to football, as cricket fans will attest). Unlike in Europe, where betting is more regulated, very large bets can be made and therefore large amounts won. In a report by the French think tank, IRIS, investigators reported that up to €300,000 could be staked on a match even at as modest a level as the Belgian second division. Also, betting is effectively anonymous in Asia, as there is minimal regulation and monitoring.
Betting is illegal in most of Asia but agents aggregate bets from a host of illegal street operators. Much of the money ends up in the legal market, with the largest bookmakers in the world – licensed in the Philippines. But by then the bets are hidden in large parcels and flows of funds cannot be traced to source. Huge enthusiasm for betting on European sport in Asia has provided the liquidity (or camouflage) in betting markets which allows large-scale fixing operations to make huge profits. The failure of Asian jurisdictions to provide for legal, regulated betting makes the market safe for criminals to exploit.
This all serves to make the 1915 Big Fix look like part of a cottage industry. Modern-day fixing poses a much stronger threat. And in England, threats extend even to the semi-professional game, which has not escaped the attention of international criminals.