It’s amazing to think that even today, with all of the technologies we have at our disposal, that sports stars and criminal gangs believe they can get away with spot fixing.
But it does still go on, and worryingly it seems deeply entrenched in Brazilian football, where 16 people – including seven players from top-tier Serie A teams – have been charged with criminal offences relating to fraud. Another, Max Alves, has been suspended by MLS club Colorado Rapids while the investigation is ongoing. He used to play for one of Brazil’s most storied teams, Flamengo.
This isn’t just a quick scandal that’s being investigated by the Brazilian FA, by the way. The case has been passed to federal authorities, with the government’s justice minister Flavio Dino involved. It’s fair to predict that those found guilty will be banned from football for a long time – if not permanently, in Brazil at least.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2023 alone we’ve also seen major criminal investigations launched after spot-fixing was uncovered in elite cricket and snooker, while even a competition as prestigious as the FA Cup has not avoided the spectre of the fixers and their targets.
What is Spot-Fixing?
Match fixing in sport is where a player, participant or an entire team engages in actions designed to change the outcome of the game.
But spot-fixing is slightly different in that the ‘fraud’ is usually a relatively minor act that won’t necessarily affect the result, e.g. a player getting a yellow card, giving away a corner or losing a frame of snooker.
That was the case in the Brazilian spot-fixing scandal, where gangs of bettors bribed players to get deliberately booked or give away as many corners as possible to satisfy their bets.
One of the most common sports in which spot-fixing is attempted is cricket. During a test series between England and Pakistan, three Pakistan players and a bookmaker conjured up a plan for teenage bowler Mohammad Amir to bowl no-balls at specific times.
However, the plot was unravelled when an undercover news reporter captured Mazhar Majeed on camera accepting money to arrange the fix. He and the trio of players – Amir, Salman Butt and Mohammad Amir – were imprisoned and banned from cricket.
There have also been spot-fixing incidents in the IPL, with former Indian bowler Shanthakumaran Nair Sreesanth embroiled in one scandal and banned for life (he’s now back playing again), and at the Women’s T20 World Cup, where it’s alleged that a Bangladesh player was approached to spot-fix in return for cash.
Oxford United footballer Ciaron Brown is accused of getting booked on purpose in his side’s FA Cup game against Arsenal back in 2022, while in snooker ten Chinese players are being investigated over claims they deliberately lost frames to order.
Why Do Players Agree to Spot Fix?
Given the financial and personal perks of being a professional athlete, it’s amazing that they would throw it all away by getting involved in spot fixing.
The main reason is obvious: cold, hard cash. In Brazil, it’s claimed that players involved in the fixing scandal there could earn £80,000 for getting sent off and £10,000 for a booking – this is in a league where the average salary is a lot lower than that of an English Premier League star, of course.
Sometimes, it’s possible that naïve youngsters are persuaded to get involved in such scams. In the Pakistan cricket scandal, Amir – who was just 18 at the time – was thought to have been encouraged by his captain, Butt, and the older leader of the bowling attack, Asif, to act on their orders.
There can be a criminal element too, with threats of violence against the individual and their loved ones if they don’t comply. Liang Wenbo, the snooker professional at the heart of that sport’s fixing investigation, allegedly approached younger Chinese players to lose frames.
One, then 20-year-old Chang Bingyu, claimed that Liang had threatened him to lose a game by a 1-4 scoreline.
“I was afraid that he had bet so much money. If I didn’t agree, he would make trouble for me, so I had no choice but to agree. I was very scared,” Chang said.
How Do the Punters Profit from Spot Fixing?
Imagine being able to bet on sport and knowing what was going to happen.
That’s like having your own cash printer, so you can see why spot-fixing is appealing to unscrupulous gangs who have the financial means – or a reputation for violence – to coerce sports stars along for the ride.
Typically, spot-fixing is based on betting online on fairly niche markets, although wagers placed on a player to be booked or for a specific scoreline to be recorded are harder to detect as these are generally more popular with casual punters.
The key for the gangs and masterminds involved is to avoid detection for long enough that they can profit – that’s becoming much harder these days.
How Do the Bookies Identify Spot Fixing?
Many of the more reputable bookmakers employ their own in-house fraud analysts, who are tasked with identifying betting patterns that can be described as suspicious. It could be a large weight of money coming in on a niche betting market or low-grade game, or a flurry of bets placed at a specific time.
Independent agencies like Sportradar are also monitoring the industry, and they are identifying a worrying trend that suggests spot-fixing in sport is actually on the rise.
By their very nature, most spot-fixing incidents are identified after the fact due to the rapid nature of the bets being placed – meaning that it’s almost impossible to stop sports stars from carrying out their instructions.
That, of course, means that sport at even the highest level is vulnerable to scams and fraud involving its participants.