Examining the history of match-fixing in sport and the efforts made to tackle it

This post is the latest in my series examining famous, or perhaps infamous, legal cases that have affected the world of sport. Today I concentrate on the world of match-fixing and the consequences for those sportsman caught in the act. This post also carries on from one of my previous posts dealing with the common law crime of public nuisance.

In 1915 a Football League inquiry concluded that a First Division match that ended Manchester United 2 Liverpool 0 had been ‘squared’ by the players who had bet on the outcome. Fifty years later, and far more seriously, ten players were given jail sentences for their part in match-fixing. Jimmy Gauld and the three Sheffield Wednesday players, David Layne, Peter Swan and Tony Kay arranged the results of a match between Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town in 1962, betting that their own team would lose. They were accused of the common law offence of conspiracy to defraud and found guilty. The investigations went on to involve more than thirty professional players, ten of whom received sentences of up to 4 years, and were banned from playing football for life.

Fast forward almost another half century and we have the matter of R v Ong which was a criminal case involved a betting scam in which the floodlights at a Premier Division football match between Charlton Athletic and Liverpool were to be sabotaged thus causing the match to be abandoned and which was inherently dangerous to the thousands of fans within the ground.

West Ham United vs Crystal Palace, November 1997. Frank Lampard had just struck an equaliser for West Ham United when the floodlights at Upton Park suddenly failed, plunging the whole ground into darkness and forcing the abandonment of the game.

Wimbledon AFC v Arsenal FC, December 1997. Another floodlight failure during the match caused an abandonment to the game and much disappoint to football fans all over London. Perhaps the only people that were smiling were 6,500 miles away in Malaysia where members of an Asian betting syndicate celebrated a six-figure payout on “fixing” the abandonment of the matches.

However, when they tried for a third time, at a match involving Charlton vs Liverpool, their plans were foiled. Roger Firth was a security guard at Charlton Athletic Football Club who had been bribed to trip the electrics using a remote control. He made the mistake, albeit a fortuitous one for the authorities, to tell a colleague of the plan. His colleague later alerted the police. As a result of this four men – two Malaysians, a Chinese man as well as Roger Firth himself, – were arrested and charged with the common law offence of public nuisance. The group were subsequently jailed for between 18 months and four years. More on the crime of public nuisance can be found in my previous post.

This is of course not the first time that English Football has been linked with betting syndicates. In 1997 the household names of Bruce Grobbelaar, John Fashanu and Hans Segers, as well as businessman Richard Lim, stood trial charged with match-fixing at Winchester Crown Court.

The Sun newspaper said that it had collected “overwhelming evidence” that the three men had been rigging matches. Grobbelaar was personally accused of taking £40,000 from a betting syndicate in the Far East to ensure Liverpool lost to Newcastle in a 1993 match. More sensationally it was alleged that he blew the chance to make a further £125,000 when he “accidentally” made a sensational save against Manchester United.

Grobbelaar insisted that all he had done was forecast results, not fix them, and two compelling trials in Winchester later ended with all the defendants being acquitted of the crimes laid against them. Grobbelaar went on to win £85,000 in libel damages in the High Court from The Sun newspaper for publishing the match-fixing allegations. The newspaper denied libel, claiming justification and qualified privilege. It argued that secretly-recorded video tapes and the acceptance by Grobbelaar of a £2,000 payment, shortly before publication, were “absolutely damning” to him. Clearly The Sun newspaper were hoping that the lower burden of proof in the civil courts would aid them in their defence against Grobbelaar. Unfortunately for them they were wrong and ended up paying out substantial damages to the Liverpool goalkeeper.

Football in Italy and Greece have also been investigated in recent years, with several high profile Serie A matches being the subject of suspicious betting patterns. Who can forget Juventus being stripped of their Serie A Title and relegated to Serie B for match-fixing in 2006.

Italian football was once again in the headlines this year when Lazio captain Stefano Mauri and several other top Serie A players were arrested as part of an investigation into the so-called Calcioscommesse sports betting scandal. Nineteen people were implicated in the affair as police swooped on a number of addresses up and down the country. They were accused of having received money to fix matches for betting syndicates, whose head is believed to be based in Singapore. National team full-back Domenico Criscito’s room was searched at Italy’s Euro 2012 camp just outside Florence as part of the probe while Juventus coach Antonio Conte’s home was also searched by police. Of the nineteen people involved in the dawn raids of 19th May 2012, ten were either current or former players from the top four divisions in Italy.

Floodlight failures, such as those in the Premiership, have also occurred in Europe, perhaps the most notorious example involved a match between Tenerife and Athletic Bilbao in Spain’s Primera Liga in 2002. Bookmakers across Asia reported suspicious betting patterns on the game with home team Tenerife heavily opposed in match betting in the hours before kick-off. Tenerife were deep in relegation trouble, and only a victory for them and a loss by rivals Mallorca would keep them in La Liga. When the floodlights failed at half-time Tenerife were left in the dark as they waited for news from Mallorca. The game only resumed once it was clear that Mallorca had won 2-1 and so Tenerife, who were themselves 2-1 up, went into the second half knowing they had already been relegated. They went on to let in two goals after the restart to lose 3-2.

There are several provisions under UK law which can be considered when dealing with the manipulation of sporting results. Statutory corruption and fraud offences are covered by the Bribery Act 2010, and the Fraud Act 2006. In 2005 the government passed the UK Gambling Act, section 42 of which contains a specific offence which addresses cheating at gambling. Amongst other specifications, the Act resulted in the establishment of the Gambling Commission, which has power to investigate, prosecute and void bets when there is suspicion of cheating.

According to section 42, a person who cheats at gambling, or does anything for the purpose of enabling or assisting another person to cheat is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years, and/or a fine. As specified in section 42, subsection 3, cheating at gambling may constitute actual or attempted deception or interference in connection with the process by which gambling is conducted, or a real or virtual game, race or other event or process to which gambling relates. Therefore the provision applies both to those who place bets illegally and to those who are involved in the betting related manipulation of sport events.

Under this section, it is considered to be immaterial whether the person who cheats improves his chances of winning, or actually wins. As clarified by the Gambling Act’s Explanatory Notes, a person is considered to commit an offence irrespective of whether he actually gains anything as a result of the cheating, or whether the cheating has the effect of improving that person’s chances of winning. This means that someone who cheats without securing gains, or someone who cheats on behalf of another person, is still considered to have committed an offence.

Still, the Gambling Commission and the police have been criticised by bookmakers for failing to use the powers provided by the Act. In the five years since its implementation the only case of note was that of spot-fixing in cricket in which three Pakistani players and their manager arranged no balls during Pakistan’s Fourth Test against England in order to facilitate others to cheat at gambling. They were charged with conspiracy to cheat under section 42 of the Gambling Act, and conspiracy to obtain and accept corrupt payments, as referred to under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906. All three players were convicted to prison sentences ranging from 6 months to 2.5 years and the payment of fines ranging from £8,120 to £30,937. The manager in this case was convicted and sentenced to 2 years and 8 months in prison and a fine payment of £56,554.

For UK law to be successful it must also depend on the co-operation of overseas jurisdictions and authorities, which has not always been easy, but perhaps attitudes in this area are changing. In June 2012 Malaysian police conducted almost 150 raids on illegal betting rings and detained 100 people involved in gambling during the European Football Championship. Malaysian police worked in collaboration with officials from China, Macau, Hong Kong and Singapore to conduct the move across the country. It is suspected that five international syndicates were involved in betting worth more than $16 million on European Football Championship matches.

Corruption in sport has existed since there has been betting on sport and betting on sport has existed for as long as there has been sport. There is no doubt that the 20th Century saw a huge increase in sport betting and there is little doubt that the 21st Century will continue to see a further phenomenal increase with the advent of new technologies and gambling opportunities. Sport betting is now a £65 billion industry worldwide. This has of course created even more of a challenge to the integrity of professional sport.

From 1919 when the all-conquering Chicago White Sox threw baseball’s World Series after accepting money from betting syndicates, through to the more recent cases involving a snooker match in September 2008 between Peter Ebdon and Liang Wenbo, or UEFA’s 2009 investigation into match fixing which involved 200 matches in a number of National Leagues and the Champions League, it is easy to see that cheating in sport is more than likely here to stay. It is up to those in authority such as the FA, UEFA, FIFA, and the Gambling Commission to take a hard stance with those that risk the integrity of sport watched and loved by billions worldwide.

We watch sport, in part, because of the drama and unpredictability of it. In theory anything can happen and it often always does whether it be by luck, chance, mistake, or superb skill on behalf of an athlete. But with betting syndicates around one must always wonder if a moment of pure chance or luck is really just that, or is it somebody just switching off the lights.

For further information on how countries in the EU are attempting to combat match-fixing in sport please see the attached study Match-fixing in sport: A mapping of criminal law provisions in EU 27 from March 2012 by KEA European Affairs.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.