A Primer on Match Fixing in the Wake of the Cameroon World Cup Allegations
Late Monday night, FIFA’s worst nightmare began to break. The Cameroon Football Federation sent out an urgent press release announcing that they were investigating claims that several of Cameroon’s recent matches were fixed, most notably the country’s 4-0 loss to Croatia during the group stage of the World Cup. The allegations come from a story in German newspaper Der Spiegel, which reported that notable alleged Singaporean match fixer Wilson Raj Perumal told the paper in a pre-match Facebook chat that the African side would have a player sent off in the first half before losing 4-0. Both would later occur in the match. Perumal further alleged that the Cameroon team had “seven bad apples” and has been involved, to some extent, with fixing all three of its group stage matches before exiting the tournament.
Perumal has since issued a statement, via the co-authors of his biography, denying that he predicted the result.
Of course, allegations of fixed soccer matches aren’t anything new. What makes this so shocking and so meaningful is the idea that a World Cup match was fixed. It’s one thing for some third-division match under a rock in front of 40 people to be rigged. If a World Cup match can be manipulated with the globe watching, though, is there any match that can’t be fixed?
There’s still no guarantee that the Cameroon-Croatia match was fixed. International criminals aren’t exactly the most trustworthy sort, so it seems fair to take Perumal’s word with a grain of salt. That being said, Perumal co-authored a stunning book detailing his story and history of fixing matches throughout the world. I coincidentally read Perumal’s book just before the World Cup began. It’s impossible to tell how much of it (if any) is true, but it’s a fascinating story, and some of it certainly jibes with aspects of other match-fixing investigations that have eventually come out in the public eye.
Of course, even the term match fixing might be a bit of a misnomer; it can be more pervasive and far subtler than simply getting one team to willingly lose a game. We probably won’t know what happened with Cameroon for a while (if we ever do), but here’s a primer on match fixing to detail how and why the process works before getting into that fateful Croatia match.
What is match fixing?
Match fixing (or manipulation, rigging, or one of a number of other terms) is an attempt by somebody to ensure that a specific result or event occurs in a given contest. Almost always, the person trying to rig a match is a gambler who aims to make money from the desired result, although that’s not always the case; take the 2006 Calciopoli scandal, where clubs in Serie A of the Italian League attempted to have compromised referees assigned to their matches to aid their chances of winning.
While the most obvious kind of fixing is done to ensure that one team loses, the wide variety of bets available allow for a variety of different opportunities. Sometimes, merely winning or losing isn’t profitable enough, especially when a minnow is taking on a relative powerhouse; the weaker team will have to lose by a number of goals to overcome a handicap, a goal spread similar to the point spreads we know from the NFL.
Many of Perumal’s purported fixes were not for a particular side but instead for the total number of goals scored in a match. Many bookmakers also allow you to bet on all kinds of minutiae and events within a match. You can often bet on the possibility that a player will get sent off, or that a penalty will be converted. Even subtleties like the number of corner kicks in a match are up for grabs. In one sample incident, England international Matt Le Tissier admitted 14 years after the fact that he attempted to cash in on a 1995 bet that the ball would go out of play for the first time inside of the first minute of a match between his Southampton side and Wimbledon, only to miskick his attempt to do so. And that was before the advent of worldwide in-running live betting over the Internet on matches.
How do gamblers manipulate matches?
It’s easy to understand why gamblers fix matches. The how is much trickier. Perumal worked with various Asian syndicates, mostly Singaporean, in fixing matches around the globe. In many cases, he allegedly served as the point man of the syndicate on the ground, handing out money to various football association executives, players, and referees. (Allegedly is a word you’re going to see a lot in this piece.) Perumal’s book details a number of different methods he would use to fix matches, including:
1. By providing teams amenable to a fix for an international friendly or series of friendlies. Perumal details at length how he fixed the 2007 Merdeka Cup, an anonymous international tournament in Malaysia with no bearing on competitive football. Having gained the trust of a penniless Malaysia FA, Perumal volunteered to find teams who would come compete in the tournament and to pay their expenses for doing so as part of “sponsoring” the event. He eventually landed on Zimbabwe and Lesotho, traveling to Zimbabwe to personally gain the approval of a Zimbabwean FA official (whom he refers to as “Jumbojumbo”) while detailing how the team would receive $50,000 per match to cooperate with Perumal’s wishes. After Zimbabwe and Lesotho both agreed, they flew to the tournament and (mostly) cooperated.
Sadly for Perumal, his Lesotho team eventually came up against a Laos team that was controlled by another fixer who had a different bet. Heading into the second half of the match, Perumal wanted Lesotho to avoid conceding or scoring any further, while the opposing fixer allegedly wanted Laos to either score or allow three more goals. The scene Perumal describes is farcical:
As the second half of the match began, the Laos back-line disappeared from the pitch. Nine players advanced to the front-line in hopes of scoring leaving just one man, at times nobody, in defense. And what did the Lesotho boys do? Since there were no Laos defenders between them and the Laos goal, they shot from 40 meters away. You should really get a recording of this match from the Malaysia FA, it’s worth watching; you’ll never come across a football game like this in your entire life.
2. By essentially buying their way into football clubs. Perumal and an associate eventually found their way to Scandinavia, where they would fix matches at a number of clubs in Finland. Most notably, Perumal offered to invest more than a million Euros in struggling Finnish side Tampere United if they allowed him to invite several awful players from outside the country on the take to come play for the club. They took about half of the money and didn’t bother to play the players Perumal brought on; they’re also now banned from Finnish soccer. For some of his fixes, Perumal was actually able to issue instructions during matches to players on the pitch from the team bench.
Perumal suggests that he didn’t need influence over much of a team to fix a match, preferring to focus on the defense. “I prefer back-line players: the two central defenders, the last man stopper and the goalkeeper. If you can get three back-line players on your payroll then you can execute a fix because, when you want to lose, the attackers can’t help you,” he wrote.
3. By exploiting referees. The New York Times did an excellent job of detailing the story of Niger referee Ibrahim Chaibou as part of their piece on Perumal and match fixing in soccer at the end of May. Perumal (and surely other match fixers) would be able to pay officials far more than they would ever dream of making from FIFA to help fix matches in a number of obvious ways, from issuing cards to awarding questionable penalties. Perumal would then use his influence (or money) with certain football associations or governing bodies to have those referees placed in the matches of his choice, especially in the friendlies he had helped to arrange.
4. By cold-meeting with players. One of Perumal’s simplest, most effective methods was to go to small international tournaments where security was lax and form relationships with players. In 2008, he went to the Caribbean Cup in Jamaica and met players from Trinidad and Tobago, who were attempting to earn their way into the Gold Cup. They didn’t qualify, but later, Perumal used that meeting to come back and (again allegedly) fix an April 2009 World Cup qualifier between Trinidad and Tobago and the United States in Nashville. That game ended as Perumal desired, a 3-0 U.S. win with a very questionable goal allowed by the Trinidad keeper to Jozy Altidore in the 89th minute. The irony? According to Perumal, the keeper wasn’t on his payroll.
5. By sending a fake team. Perumal was reportedly responsible when a Bahrain team beat a team of anonymous fake Togolese players in a September 2010 friendly, 3-0. In the book, Perumal denies credit for the team itself, noting that he would have rather sent a Togo youth team that would have lost as badly without attracting international attention.
Why do players agree to go along with match fixing?
The simplest answer is money. In many cases, the money a player can make from match fixing can be far greater than that available to him by playing on the level. When Perumal moved into Finland, the first club he and his associate approached was Rovaniemen Palloseura (RoPS). His associate created a social-media account to create a point of contact with several of the players before moving to Finland. When he and Perumal met with them, they revealed that they only made about €1,000 per month, after their expenses for club-issued housing and food. That barely qualified as a livable wage. Perumal could easily offer them 10 times as much to fix matches, and he did.
Perumal would combine the promise of money with the ability to bet heavily on games that would have little impact on a player’s career. He would often target teams in the middle of competitions that were left with games to play despite being mathematically eliminated from advancing to the next round, or players in meaningless friendlies with little bearing on any international future. Although he would fix World Cup qualifiers, and other scandals around the world have indicated that club fixtures at the highest level have been compromised, it was always far more difficult for Perumal to fix matches when the team(s) in question had something to play for.
Has a World Cup match ever been fixed before?
It’s unclear. Declan Hill, who wrote the aforementioned New York Times article, has done as much to investigate and write about match fixing around the world as anybody. In his excellent book The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime, Hill details the possibility that the 2006 Round of 16 match between Ghana and Brazil was rigged, in part by a meeting at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Bangkok. It is difficult to imagine that a knockout match would be rigged, but Hill’s evidence is certainly thorough.
What are the typical characteristics of a fixed match?
It’s always difficult to say, because a fix can come in so many different ways, but here are some factors to which Perumal’s stories often point in cases of match manipulation:
A number of goals, late in the contest, for one team. By leaving the action until late in the match, a bettor can continue to get more money down on a game with bets made during the match, frequently as the odds improve in their favor. Let’s say that a match between New Caprica and Earth was fixed, and before the match, an Asian gambling syndicate wanted to bet on New Caprica -1.5 and over 2.5 goals in the match. As the match goes along at 0-0 for the first 60 minutes, the odds on New Caprica covering the two-goal handicap and the two teams combining to score more than three goals will rise, since it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that those goals will come. That creates better odds for the syndicate, and when New Caprica scores three goals in the final 10 minutes to win, they get far more than they would have if Earth had given up three goals in the first half. (For obvious reasons, this sort of bet doesn’t work as well if a bettor wants under a certain number of goals; in that case, they’re more likely to instruct the teams to score a number of goals in the first half, narrowly approaching the total for the game, before shutting things down in the second half.)
One or more penalty kicks, preferably of dubious distinction, are awarded. Not all questionable penalties are signs of a fixed match, of course, but penalties have a disproportionate impact on the game and are the easiest way to manipulate matches. The second half of that Times article refers to a 2011 international tournament in Turkey where seven goals were scored across a four-team tournament played behind closed doors … all on penalties.
One or more players is sent off. Reducing a team to 10 (or nine, or fewer) men helps, too.
The presence of underpaid or undermotivated players in key roles in either team’s lineup. As mentioned earlier, fixers target players who have little to play for or who can make life-changing money by agreeing to help manipulate matches. Hill also suggests that international players who are aggrieved with their country might also be vulnerable, as part of his reasoning for why Ghana allegedly threw a match in 2006 relates back to an argument over unpaid bonuses that took place before the World Cup.
The match is made available for live betting, with a healthy betting volume available to mask larger bets and the resulting shifts in odds. More on that in a bit.
Is there evidence that Cameroon was match fixing?
If you ignore Perumal’s quote, the evidence isn’t clear, but there are certainly suspicious events that come into play, especially during that Croatia match. While the goals for Croatia didn’t come very late in the match, three of them came during the second half, including a bizarrely bad goal kick by PAOK goalkeeper Charles Itandje to set up the second, a totally uncontested header for Mario Mandzukic on a corner to score the third, and an easy tap-in off of a rebound for an unmarked Mandzukic for the fourth.
Late in the first half, key Cameroonian midfielder Alex Song was sent off for a bizarre, unprovoked punch at Mandzukic’s back. Then, deep into second half stoppage time, Cameroonian defenders Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Benjamin Moukandjo got into a heated argument, with Assou-Ekotto attempting to head-butt his teammate, a move that would normally bring a red card had the referee seen the incident.
You can begin to form your doubts about other moments for Cameroon, too. They lost a pre-Cup friendly to Paraguay in Austria, 2-1, during a game in which they reportedly dominated possession without showing any threat on goal until the final 15 minutes. There, they scored and were awarded a late penalty, only for Mohammadou Idrissou to have his spot-kick saved. The whole tournament also came amid turmoil for Cameroon, as the 23-man squad refused to board their plane for Brazil until they came to terms with the FA and government on how much they would be paid per match in Brazil. And when the Cameroonian team had nothing to play for in their final group match, they lost 4-1 to Brazil.
That is a lot of anecdotal evidence that doesn’t necessarily prove that anything untoward has occurred. Cameroon was competitive in its opening-match loss with Mexico, as well as its three other pre-Cup friendlies, including a 2-2 draw with Germany. Assou-Ekotto explained that his argument with Moukandjo was a disagreement about not passing the ball. Song plays for Barcelona, one of the richest clubs in the world; it’s difficult to imagine that he would need the financial gain that would come from fixing a World Cup match. (Same for Assou-Ekotto, on healthy wages at Queens Park Rangers.)
You can look back and start to fill in a story if you start with the idea that Cameroon is match fixing, but without the impetus, you can also look at what Cameroon did and just come to the conclusion that they weren’t a very good side.
How does FIFA fight match fixing?
With that match-fixing commercial we’ve seen over and over during the World Cup! What, you want more than that? Fine. FIFA has an Early Warning System that is designed to monitor betting patterns in an attempt to identify matches that might be targeted for fixes. In other words, even if you could find a sportsbook that would take a $1 million bet that the ball will go out of play during the first minute of play in the USA-Belgium match Tuesday, FIFA’s system would be designed to identify the action as irregular and set off an alarm that the match might be vulnerable.
The problem with the Early Warning System is that it doesn’t actually appear to work very well in the places where it would matter most. The vast majority of the betting markets where people like Perumal and the syndicate(s) he’s belonged to place bets are underground in Asia, with virtually no regulation. Perumal details in his book how much of the betting is done on private sections of public-facing websites and on credit through a series of bosses, each with a larger limit than the one below him. The total handle on these bets is estimated to be several billion dollars on a daily basis, making it easy for Perumal to hide large bets on a given match, especially if it’s a marquee game being watched around the world. It would be virtually impossible for FIFA to come up with a way to regulate or eliminate these betting houses.
For whatever commercials they choose to run, the world’s largest soccer organization has very little to say in the matter. Jailing the likes of Perumal (who was recently arrested for the second time in Finland before likely extradition to a waiting sentence in Singapore) and Dan Tan will do little to solve the actual problem.
As for Cameroon, well, it’s hard to say what will become of them. If there are seven players on the team who are proven to have fixed matches at the World Cup, their punishment will be severe, with permanent banishment from the sport a likely option. I’ll be intrigued to see what the investigation reveals, even if I’m very skeptical that an investigation conducted by the Cameroon FA and FIFA will be very thorough. They have little to gain from revealing their own corruption. I don’t know that Cameroon necessarily manipulated results during this World Cup, but I would be surprised if the entire tournament actually went untouched by match fixers. There’s simply too much to be gained and too little to stop it from occurring.