On February 3, 2014, FC Slutsk scored two late, second-half goals to rally and beat the heavily favored Shakhter Soligorsk 2-1 in a Belarusian Premier League match. For Shakhter, a team that has played in both the Europa League and the Champions League, it was a tough loss to swallow. Only they didn't have to. The game never actually took place.
Nevertheless, at least two legal European bookmakers—bet365 and SBOBET—took bets on this match. SBOBET even confirmed the result with the victorious Slutsk team. Currently, the entire affair is under investigation, and similar incidents raise an obvious question: how is this even possible?
Let's zoom out. The world is a pretty big place, and despite the interconnectivity the internet has brought, no one can be everywhere all at once. Soccer matches, especially "friendlies," are constantly taking place at different levels, in different leagues, in different countries, and in different time zones. No one is watching them all. No one could. Yet every match, no matter how forgettable, seems to attract betting action.
Ghost matches take advantage of this insatiable demand, and the information-rich—perhaps too rich—environment that fuels it. Often using real teams, fixers have created soccer matches out of thin air; falsifying schedules, stats, and outcomes. Meanwhile, bookmakers—legal and illegal—all over the world have taken bets on these ghost matches.
"The Ghosts" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Image via Public Domain, WikiMedia Commons
In August 2014, for example, Portugal's Freamunde and Spain's Ponferradina supposedly played an exhibition match. In reality, Freamunde did play that day, but not against Ponferradina. Even so, a bookmaker's on-site data operative reported that the two teams met and compiled stats for the game, which also was featured for live betting on Betfair. This incident is also under investigation.
Though only four such ghost matches have been officially acknowledged, it's likely many more have taken place, especially in the lucrative, illegal Asian betting markets. A 2011 report in the Telegraph stated that FIFA was aware that national teams from the Asian Football Confederation as well as perhaps one team from the Middle East were used in similar cons.
In a way, ghost matches are the next logical step for increasingly aggressive international match-fixers, who already have bribed players, referees, and sports officials, and even gone so far as to field a Togolese national team full of impostors in order to secure desired outcomes. Thing is, widespread bribes and/or paying impostors can be expensive, whereas creating a ghost match requires paying off a single person: the data scout.
In order to keep up with the ever-growing demand to bet on every aspect and moment of sporting events, bookmakers hire live data operatives or "scouts" who provide second-by-second updates on each and every game. If you've ever used MLB.com's At Bat or followed NFL.com's GameTracker, someone on the other end of that app is actively entering that live, in-game information. In soccer, with so many low-level matches being played, these data operatives are paid little, perhaps $50 a game, to sit in the stands and update the game action as it occurs.
Because these scouts are low-paid and virtually anonymous, they are rife for corruption. Who besides the data operative and the few thousand fans—if even that many—in the stands are going to know what actually occurred in these matches?
Of course, the American betting market is too sophisticated to fall for such a plot. Right?
Perhaps not. Las Vegas may have been home to the first such "ghost" game.
"Hamlet and his father's ghost" by Henry Fuseli. Image via Public Domain, WikiMedia Commons
In the 1960s, professional sports gambler Pete White seemed one step ahead. He cataloged college football and basketball teams' coaching philosophies, player skills, whatever facts he thought would help him make a better point spread or give him a betting edge. In his book We Were Wiseguys and Didn't Know It, former Stardust Race and Sports Book head Scott Schettler writes that White's greatest wager had less to do with cold-blooded analysis then sheer chutzpah:
... In the early '70's, Pete pulled off a beautiful con just to prove he could do it. Not for money, because he exposed it as soon as he accomplished it and kept no money. He invented a phony college basketball game for a busy Saturday, got the game entered in the schedule, got it on the betting boards, bet it, got phony scores sent over the wire, and collected on the 'winner.' He didn't keep the money, but told the bookies how sad they were; they weren't doing their homework ...
Of course, that was then, this is now. In theory, Vegas and its European and Asian counterparts shouldn't be duped by phony matches. Nor should underground bookmakers. Only ghost matches work. So does a related con, one taken straight out of the movie The Sting.
Past-posting—that is, delaying information long enough for an accomplice to bet on a known outcome—is still alive and well. Think of it as the little brother of ghost matches. Used by horse bettors back in the day, wire services would sometimes suffer a delay in transmitting information on race results. Clever bettors ahead of the curve could use such knowledge to make bets on those races already run.
In Europe, scouts reportedly have been paid off to delay reporting on in-game events just long enough for their cohorts to wager on what appears to be an unlikely outcome. And never mind bribes: Sports Radar Security Services wrote of one shocking instance where a live data operative was forced at gunpoint to delay reporting a goal scored.
In an effort to combat these illegal behaviors, FIFA has attempted to create a reporting system in which each country is required to give notice whenever a sanctioned friendly is being played. Betting services and websites have built-in monitoring systems to watch for unusual wagering patterns in an attempt to spot fixes in progress. Yet despite these efforts, the fixers constantly seem to be ahead of the game.
Is there an ultimate solution? When it comes to ghost matches, it's hard to catch what doesn't exist.