How to Catch a Match Fixer
Sportradar, a data company, might do more to combat match-fixing than any other organization. They took us behind the scenes of one of their most successful investigations.
Illustration by Daniel Roozendaal
On the day the investigation began, in the fall of 2012, Tom Mace arrived at work just as he always did, walking the final steps to his office on a tree-lined street bordering the Richmond Green. The Green is among the most famous strips of grass in England. Just a couple hundred meters off the Thames River, to the west of Central London, the Green once served as a front lawn of sorts for the Tudors at Richmond Palace. Today it's one of the Palace's only remnants, and also something of a holy site for people devoted to sports: the game of cricket has been played there since the late 1600s.
Mace, however, is not concerned with sports history, or at least not the kind you find in books. His office across the street from the Green is the headquarters of the security services department of a company called Sportradar, where Mace and his colleagues deal with what's probably the single greatest challenge facing contemporary sports: match-fixing. More is done in the Sportradar office on the Green to combat the international networks of cunning match fixers than perhaps anywhere else on Earth.
Mace buzzed in through the heavy gate at the Shorewater House, an old three-story rowhouse with a light brick facade and high-arching, first-floor window frames. He passed the security officer at the front desk and skipped up some back steps before entering the Sportradar office, where he joined the other half dozen or so analysts working that day. The room, when full, can call to mind the movie set of a futuristic military command post. Each analyst sits at a workstation in front of two or three computer monitors, but rather than showing alien troop movements, the screens are alive with sports scores and betting odds, the numbers blinking and changing as matches unfold in real time.
It was evening when Sportradar's Fraud Detection System, which monitors betting lines for indications of possible match-fixing, issued the alert. Phones around the room came alive as the analysts received automated emails about the suspicious match, a semi-pro soccer game. This isn't particularly unusual; Sportradar's Security Services watches leagues around the world for clients like the English Football Association, and its system flags hundreds of suspicious games each year. What made the analysts get up from their chairs and crowd around, speaking hushed tones of disbelief, was the match's location, not on a muddy field in Eastern Europe or Italy, as often is the case, but in suburban London. It involved AFC Hornchurch, a club then playing in the Conference South, England's sixth division. And while neither Mace nor his fellow analysts had any idea at the time, this one otherwise forgettable contest—full of part-timers playing for hundreds of dollars a week rather than the hundreds of thousands afforded their colleagues in the Premier League—would lead to the unraveling of a match-fixing ring worth millions of dollars that extended all the way to Australia, Singapore, and Hungary.
Sportradar is a data company founded in 2000 that supplies statistics and analysis to a variety of clients around the world: media organizations, professional leagues and sports federations, and, crucially for this story, bookmakers. The global sports betting business, by many estimates, is worth about a trillion dollars annually. Sportradar's gambling division, Betradar, occupies the center of that industry, as a kind of clearinghouse for odds and other services for bookmakers.
A good bookmaker will set up odds so they appear enticing to both sides of a bet: if Arsenal plays Stoke in the Premier League, the bookies want an equal amount of action on both clubs, the better to spread risk. (This isn't how they make money, however. They do that by designing the odds so each bet results in a small percentage going to the house, called the vig or the juice.) If more money than expected goes in on Stoke as game time approaches, bookies will adjust the odds to make Stoke less attractive and Arsenal more so, ensuring things remain balanced.
Betradar partners with more than 450 bookmakers worldwide. Often, bookmakers don't create odds in-house for every match they offer. They might cover the Premier League themselves, but don't have the expertise to offer odds on, say, Estonian soccer's second division. For that, they turn to Betradar, which covers 40 different sports and hundreds of thousands of games a year. The agreement with Betradar is an exchange of odds: Betradar offers its portfolio to the bookmaker, and the bookmaker offers whatever odds it creates in-house to Betradar. Betradar then passes the bookmakers' odds information to Sportradar's Security Services, which is a separate division of the company. Security Services covers about 65,000 games a year across 11 different sports and, according to the company, it receives roughly five billion odds adjustments from bookmakers every day.
The odds on any given contest don't just represent the potential profit of a single bet; they indicate market confidence in a certain outcome. The tsunami of data gushing into Sportradar gives the company some pretty amazing predictive power about what the odds should be in a vast number of sporting events around the world. As bookies adjust the odds, Sportradar can detect when gamblers aren't following the expected betting patterns, when there's too much money—too much confidence—on one side.
Look closely at a big enough sample, and the way odds move can tell you if a match might be fixed. Sportradar estimates that about 1 percent of all athletic competitions it covers are fixed—and it's reasonably sure it's found more than 1,800 fixes since 2009.
Sportradar's Security Services division began in 2005, in the aftermath of Germany's Hoyzer scandal, named for the referee at the center of a match-fixing scheme in the Germany's second and third divisions and the German Cup. The German federation and the Bundesliga approached the company about creating an early warning system that would alert them to anything fishy happening in the pre-game betting market. In 2009, Sportradar revamped its Early Warning System to cover live betting, and changed its name to the Fraud Detection System. The FDS now covers every UEFA competition and the top two divisions in every UEFA member nation, in addition to a number of other competitions and sports around the world.
Thanks to the Internet, the betting industry looks much different today than it did ten years ago. It enabled live betting and made it easy to gamble on events in other countries. Because there are fewer variables at work once a game has started, bookmakers often take larger bets during games than they do beforehand. You think Barcelona is dominating a game? Log on and plop down ten bucks on Barcelona to score in the next ten minutes. You think Messi is playing with extra fire? Put down five bucks for him to score the winner—you could quintuple your money. In addition to becoming more lucrative for everybody involved, the bookies, in competition with one another, offer increasingly obscure events to bet on, events that don't receive very much attention, events where there might be more at stake in the international gambling market than on the field. Match fixers are most active along these fringes, where players and refs come cheap and nobody pays attention.
Normally when betting on a live soccer match, the odds of a goal being scored get longer as time ticks by, which makes sense: fewer minutes, fewer goals. But what if, say, during the second half of a match, rather than lengthening, the odds suddenly show incredible confidence in a late goal? And then what if that late goal comes?
It's that sort of situation that triggers the FDS to issue an alert, and set Mace and his colleagues at Sportradar Security Services into motion. Often, there is a perfectly legitimate reason for late, unexpected odds movement: A star player gets hurt right before a match. Or maybe some players partied too hard the night before a game, and everyone at the bar went to the bookies the following morning to gamble with their rent money.
Some alerts, however, aren't easily explained, like the one having to do with Hornchurch. The Sportradar analysts talked to people familiar with the league, looking for answers. They combed through lower league message boards. They found nothing. It was a one-off, a single peculiarity in a sea of apparent normalcy, but it shocked them. There was something about the closeness of it; analysts didn't quite feel an affinity for the Hornchurch players, but they felt an undeniable connection: these were their countrymen, and the matches, while not exactly on the Richmond Green, were practically taking place in Sportradar's backyard.
Mace and the other analysts kept their eyes on Hornchurch. Waiting for each ensuing match made for long weeks. Would it happen again? The answer, often, was yes. The alerts kept coming, and the analysts at Sportradar took a closer look at the club's players, trying to suss out who might be involved.
Since 2009, Sportradar has maintained a database for tracking anyone and everyone who's involved in a game: players, referees, coaches, even agents—about 250,000 people in total. Combined with the match monitoring software, it allows Sportradar not only to detect which matches are suspicious but who might be responsible for carrying out the fixes.
As the number of suspicious matches in the Conference South increased and the lineups in the various matches changed, a "persons of interest" list began to crystalize. The analysts worked to corroborate the FDS's findings with information of their own, their database supporting detective-style work.
"We don't just want to know, 'were they in this match?'" said Mace, sitting in the office off the Green on a rainy day early in July. "We want to know what they were doing before, what they were doing after."
Mace joined Sportradar five years ago; like many of his colleagues, his career in the betting industry began elsewhere. At 18, he started working in a bookie's shop to earn what he called a little "beer money." After graduating from university, he realized his work combined two things he quite enjoyed—gambling and sports—and he soon found himself managing shops and moving up the ranks, first for William Hill and later for Ladbrokes, two of the UK's oldest and most reputable gambling houses. At Sportradar, he's no longer concerned just with betting lines and counting money but how those lines can be manipulated and who might be behind such manipulation.
Mace stands about 6'4'' and speaks in a deliberate, cautious cadence, as though weighing each word. He tells the Hornchurch story like he's done it a hundred times—and maybe he has—eager to get to the conclusion, hopscotching through the narrative before circling back to fill in missing details.
Throughout the fall of 2012, the analysts investigated Hornchurch while keeping an eye on the rest of the Conference South. One incident in particular caught Mace's eye. "I think it might have been this guy here," he said, pointing at a photo on a company laptop. In the photo, a group of young men, apparently on vacation, stood smiling, arm-in-arm. On the end was a thin white guy, in his early twenties, his long neck and a sharp adam's apple emerging from a dark button-down. His name is Sam Corcoran.
"He slipped over as he was taking a free kick," Mace said.
The free kick in question, which led to an immediate goal by the opposing team, is one of history's most absurd and was widely lampooned in the UK media as "the worst free kick ever." It happened in November 2012 at a Conference South match between Chelmsford City, Corcoran's team at the time, and Hayes and Yeading.
The FDS didn't issue an alert about the match, and, in my reporting of this story, Corcoran was never accused of involvement in match-fixing or any other impropriety. But, according to Mace, the incident nevertheless "gave us a lead." They realized Corcoran was friends with many of the Hornchurch players, and the investigators began examining social media connections in the Conference South, looking for signs of friendship and, perhaps, cooperation. As 2012 became 2013, it seemed clear the problem in the league extended beyond Hornchurch.
"We were looking at a bunch of these players and following them on Twitter and saw them talking about betting," Mace said. "A few of the lads clearly had a gambling habit, which is not fixing, but when you're trying to look at who's fixing matches, you try and look at who has something to bet on." (It is illegal for athletes to gamble on matches in the UK, but it's probably more common than we think. One company representative told me Sportradar suspects a number of active star players gamble on their own matches.)
Armed with what they thought were compelling indications of match-fixing and betting impropriety, Sportradar representatives met with the English FA to discuss how to proceed. Things moved slowly. On March 15, 2013, the FA issued a press release about suspicious betting activity, and they considered having Sportradar put on an education tour in the lower leagues. The police were notified. At the same time, the Gambling Commission, a governmental body that oversees gaming in the UK, began its own investigation. But before any of these organizations took decisive action, the season ended.
Then, to everyone's surprise, Sam Corcoran, and just about every player Sportradar had been monitoring, left the country. A small group wound up at a little semi-pro team in Melbourne called the Southern Stars, which then played in the second-division Victorian Premier League. Corcoran went to play for a team elsewhere in the country. (When reached for comment, Corcoran declined to speak with VICE Sports about the details of this story.)
"I was a little bit pissed off," Mace said. One player, whose name Mace later requested not be made public, was his prime suspect. "He'd been involved in betting on some of these matches. He was like the focal point, and he's gone to Australia."
"Remember, this is sixth-tier conference football; it's not professional football. They're not keeping their fitness up in the summer," Mace said. "These are part-timers, guys who have other jobs on the side, and they're suddenly moving to Australia to play soccer? It wasn't an everyday occurrence. Furthermore, we were looking at some of the comments they were making on their Twitter accounts, and it was clear this had been arranged by someone else.
"It all sort of happened so quickly. We found out on Sunday and they were flying out on Tuesday."
Like the English FA, Football Federation Australia was a Sportradar client, but at the time the company was contracted only to monitor Australia's top-flight A League, and nothing else. Of course, bookies were still offering odds on lower-level games. If they had been tipped off previously, Sportradar would have realized that, even before the influx of the English players, the Southern Stars' results were simply fishy.
"They weren't bottom of the league," Mace said, "but they were 2 points away, simply getting beat 4, 5, 6-nill. This was their sort of modus operandi, which is quite common for football teams when they're fixing—just get beat heavily. It's quite easy to profit."
Sportradar asked the English FA if they could warn their partners Down Under about the ongoing investigation into the Conference South players, and the FA agreed. Australian authorities acted with unprecedented speed. About 48 hours after being notified, Football Federation Australia had contacted the state police in Victoria, who began an immediate investigation.
Police involvement is a rarity in match fixing cases. It's up to Sportradar's clients, not the company analysts, to go to the authorities. Andreas Krannich, the Managing Director of Security Services, told me clients don't go to the police about 60 percent of the time.
Why not? When Sportradar approaches a federation with indications of match-fixing, the federation faces an inherent conflict of interest: if you oversee a sport, and its value is largely rooted in competitive integrity, and now that integrity has potentially been compromised ... well, do you work to uphold the integrity of the game or do you protect your brand? It's a real conundrum. If you call the police, you're looking at a public relations crisis and a probable loss of income, especially in the short term. Small wonder, then, that many organizations opt to keep quiet. Why risk the public outrage, not to mention an investigation you can't control?
Even when leagues and federations do connect Sportradar with law enforcement, as the Australian Federation did, it doesn't guarantee a successful prosecution. Most nations don't have specific laws in place to deal with match-fixing. Even in Germany, the country whose scandal was the impetus for Sportradar's Security Services, match fixing is not illegal. This makes it harder for police to get probable cause for wiretaps and search warrants. Instead, law enforcement has to go after match fixers obliquely, with fraud and money laundering charges.
Luckily for Sportradar's investigators, conditions were such in Australia leading up to the summer of 2013 that the Southern Stars case was easier than usual to pursue. In February of that year, the Victoria Police had established a dedicated Sporting Integrity Intelligence Unit. A few months later, in May, the State of Victoria made match-fixing explicitly illegal. Victoria was prepared to fight match-fixing like few jurisdictions in the world. As Mace put it, "They had this new law and they wanted to use it."
Sportradar worked with the Sporting Integrity Unit throughout the investigation. During at least one match, the police were on the phone with Sportradar analysts in England, who talked them through the odds movements in real time. Company representatives told me that, before one match, analysts correctly predicted a final score, to the amazement of the Victoria Police.
On August 31, 2013, the Stars played Green Gully, another Melbourne-based team. According to subsequent news reports concerning wiretap information, the fixers, a Malaysian national named Segaran "Gerry" Gsubramaniam and his crime syndicate, ordered the Stars players to allow four goals. Green Gully had a number of chances to score, but at half time the score was still 0-0. Despite everything being in their favor, Green Gully somehow didn't manage a goal until the 68th minute. The mood among the Stars players was tense. More than 20 minutes passed before Gully's second goal.
Reiss Noel, a Stars defender, would later admit in court to receiving phone calls from the fixers throughout the game: "I remember getting a call when we were losing 2-0 and the boss saying, 'This better fucking happen.'" Desperate for goals, Noel reportedly told his keeper not to save any more shots.
Two minutes into stoppage time, Green Gully scored again, but it wasn't enough. After the match, Gsubramaniam was furious. The 3-0 final had cost his syndicate some serious coin. Noel openly berated his teammates.
Through wiretaps, the police were later able to determine that Gsubramaniam was just a small player in an international syndicate that went all the way to Wilson Perumal, a notorious match fixer who at the time was in a witness protection program in Hungary.
On September 15, with the final league fixtures approaching, the Victorian Police executed raids around suburban Melbourne. Most of the players were picked up at their shared apartment. They hadn't known that their final matches were monitored by police in an unmarked car parked behind a goal, supported by a room full of betting analysts on the other side of the world.
"I only heard of Sportradar once I had been arrested," said one of the players, who never was formally changed and requested anonymity while speaking to VICE Sports.
In Australia, the arrests made national headlines. Mace was on holiday in Copenhagen when he heard the news, but enjoyed celebratory beers upon his return to London.
In the end, four players—Reiss Noel, David Obaze, Joe Woolley, and Nicholas McKoy, all English nationals—were convicted of match-fixing and fined between $1,200 and $3,000 Australian dollars. FIFA also banned them from playing soccer for the rest of their lives.
The coach, Zia Younan, was fined $3,000 Australian and given a four-month suspended sentence. Gsubramaniam got a year in jail, with a further two-year suspended sentence. In total, the fixers are thought to have made around $2 million Australian on the Southern Stars in just a couple of months.
McKoy has since appealed his conviction and is fighting to overturn the FIFA ban. In his appeal, he claimed that he'd been trafficked to Australia by Perumal's betting syndicate, which contracted several of the players out of a shell sports agency in the UK. He says he didn't find out about the fixing until he was already in Australia, and by then it was impossible to extract himself.
"The way he sold it to me was that there's an opportunity in Australia, showcase yourself, and there could be an opportunity to get to the A-League," McKoy said in a subsequent interview. He was a journeyman footballer in his late 20s. His career hadn't gone according to plan in the UK. This was his chance to start anew. But the fixers terrified him.
"I laid eyes on one of these Asian guys. He had a fat scar on his face. I was thinking, these are not the sort of people to mess around with. These are people to do with money, and you don't mess around with people and money."
In his book The Big Fix, ESPN writer Brett Forrest called the case "perhaps the most significant match fixing investigation there had ever been, the one that might finally spur governments to action." Other experts similarly hoped that the Australian example of preparation and competent execution would lead to sweeping changes and special police task forces the world over.
"The trouble with this case is that nobody here [in England] really gives a shit, to be honest," Mace said. "When the arrests were made and the trial started we all thought this was going to be huge. It's a big deal, right? Fixing matches in your own country. But it barely made a splash.
"It's Conference South footballers. It's kind of out of sight, out of mind. Nobody is really bothered to trace everything back to what's happening here. [But] it's all there. All the information is in the public domain. These guys, back where they come from, the statements the FA made..."
He trailed off, but the point lingered. Because the case had to do with semi-professionals and relatively small sums of money, lawmakers and sports administrators and fans around the world didn't pay attention, much to the dismay of people like Mace. But the case shouldn't be waved off as insignificant. Rather, we should view it as a kind of canary in the coal mine. It should make everyone wonder what's happening out there we don't know about.
Consider the scope of the problem. We're talking about a trillion-dollar legal gambling industry. Factor in illegal gambling in places like the United States—where, thanks to the daily fantasy scandal, the public and lawmakers are questioning whether it's better to legalize and regulate gambling, nationwide—and that value goes up considerably. Around the world, people almost universally agree that match-fixing is wrong. And yet, amazingly, match fixing in most countries has yet to be declared illegal.
Even if match-fixing was universally illegal, enforcement would be difficult. For all their work, Sportradar doesn't see everything. It can't. For one thing, its clients don't cover the entirety of the sports world. For another, the company is better equipped for finding smaller fixes than more expensive, high-level operations. Sportradar's system doesn't track how much money changes hands but rather how far the real odds deviate from what's expected—but the money is important. In the Australian second division, a couple hundred thousand dollars probably change hands on each round of matches, so it doesn't take much to move the odds; it takes the Federal Reserve to move the odds on, say, a World Cup match, where the action is in the billions.
When Sportradar asserts that only 1 percent of matches are fixed, it's suggesting that the scope of the problem is knowable and under control—but it isn't. Furthermore, the company's involvement with sports organizations creates the impression that corruption at these organizations isn't possible, or at least far less likely—but even this isn't true, because it's not Sportradar's responsibility to blow the whistle.
The system isn't perfect, in other words, and there are many obstacles, and yet Mace remains motivated. Professional advancement has probably helped: since the Southern Stars case wrapped, Mace was promoted to director of security services, overseeing the office on the Richmond Green. When it comes to his work, he focuses on the little victories, on the incremental change. The company has a memorandum of agreement with Interpol now, and the European Commission has passed a Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions. Though both documents are largely symbolic, they do mark progress.
Before returning to work, Mace told me, confidently, that governments are starting to come around. Getting them to take notice is just as much his job as catching fixers.
"There's still a gap to bridge," he said.
What it will take to bridge that gap remains to be seen. A fixed Champions League match? The World Cup? An NCAA Championship? Perhaps then governments will take more substantive action, and the public will care. Or perhaps we'll be satisfied to just sit and watch, so long as they keep the score lines plausible.