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By Vikneswaran Raman
KUALA LUMPUR, April 25 – The COVID-19 pandemic may have affected match-fixing and gambling activities in the beginning, but it actually prompted bookmakers to evolve and spread to new competitions and regions in Asia, according to an analyst.
The pandemic has halted almost 90 per cent of world sports since March last year, and Asian bookmakers felt the pinch as the continent contributed up to 60 per cent of the global sports betting turnover.
This has resulted in bookmakers moving to whatever competitions that are still going on, including in untouched regions in central Asia.
Bets were placed in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan leagues when most of the popular leagues halted around March-April last year, said Sportradar’s managing director of integrity services Andreas Krannich.
“We observed bookmakers offering betting for those leagues for the first time. For example, the bookmakers were open for betting for one of the lowest level leagues - the Tajikistan Under-21 League. The betting amount on that particular competition was relatively high.
“To sum up, during the entire COVID-caused disruption, bookmaking and betting activity gravitated to whichever available league that was going on regardless of region or professional standing,” he told Bernama.
He said match-fixers also seemed to target lower leaguers and competitions as these competitions lacked financial strength and attention, making them very attractive targets for match-fixers.
Krannich, who worked for 10 years with the German Bundesliga, said betting picked up in May with the resumption of the K-League (South Korean League), the first professional league to return from the pandemic disruption.
He said Sportradar saw an approximate 345 per cent increase in betting turnover compared to 2019, with the second division K-League 2 registering a hike of about 190 per cent.
Sportradar is a leading supplier of monitoring, intelligence, education and consultancy solutions to sports governing bodies, leagues, state authorities and law enforcement agencies in combating betting-related match-fixing and corruption.
The gradual return under tighter restrictions and fewer spectators has increased the risk of match-fixing and manipulations, according to Sportradar, which has a running partnership with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) till 2028.
The bookies have also changed their approach to ‘buy’ the whole team or invest funds in the name of sponsorship, instead of corrupting one or two players, so that they will have complete control over the team and players.
“How match-fixers operated in the past was a traditional one-to-one approach, when they would discreetly meet up with a player or an official to corrupt them. Moving forward, the match-fixers will be changing the way they operate in terms of organisation.
“Because of the financial struggles caused by COVID-19, many clubs in Asia are at risk of bankruptcy and are desperate for funds and financial support. They will likely accept acquisition offers without proper due diligence on the parties and flows of funds. The match-fixing problem will likely get worse,” he added.
Thus, it came as no surprise that the United Kingdom and Spanish governments are mulling to ban betting companies from advertising in top-tier team jerseys.
Krannich said the lower wages for footballers in the Asia compared to Europe and the growth of football viewership in the region could also tempt individuals to fall prey to bigger fixers.
Sportradar, which monitors over 600,000 matches a year, has detected more than 5,400 suspicious matches involving major sporting leagues in football, basketball, e-sports, tennis, volleyball and cricket in the last 15 years through its Universal Fraud Detection System (UFDS), he said.
It has resulted in 443 disciplinary sanctions and 51 criminal convictions, he said.
He said Sportradar had also recently detected suspicious activities in three countries with no history of match-fixing - Oman, Tajikistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Krannich said its partnership with AFC since 2013 had driven down match-fixing in places such as China and Malaysia, and led to several successful prosecutions, including life bans for four central Asian players involved in match-fixing in AFC competitions in 2017 and 2018, and arrest of five Nepali players for fixing matches during the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea.
“Even with sports gradually returning to normal, albeit under tighter restrictions and smaller audiences, match-fixing and manipulation in sports remain a constant threat. Match-fixers have learnt a lot by augmenting and adapting to the new normal by diversifying their operations and becoming more aggressive in their approaches across more sporting verticals and regions.
“It’s an ever-growing arms race by the authorities to keep vigil over these illicit and cancerous activities. Many individuals and organisations are facing severe financial shortfalls due to the pandemic; the fight to safeguard sport has never been more important,” he concluded.