Gold Cup match-fixing allegations highlight serious global problem
FIFA insiders have cited suspicions of match-fixing during the Gold Cup
Irregular betting patterns were noticed during games involving Cuba and Grenada
Illegal global sports betting economy is estimated in excess of $1 trillion
Held in 13 U.S. cities last summer, the CONCACAF Gold Cup drew a record attendance of 601,702, including 93,420 at the Rose Bowl for Mexico's 4-2 victory over the U.S. in the final. But the region's most important soccer tournament attracted something else too: Allegations of match-fixing. "There has been information that some matches in the Gold Cup were manipulated," FIFA head of security Chris Eaton confirmed to SI.com. "We worked with CONCACAF at the time, and CONCACAF have been very interested in following up any information that can be revealed in the future on that."
While Eaton said FIFA had no investigative confirmation of Gold Cup match-fixing, he cited irregular betting patterns during the tournament. A leading betting-industry insider told SI he was highly suspicious of every Gold Cup game involving Cuba and Grenada and also had questions about El Salvador's 5-0 loss to Mexico. The games involving Grenada (which lost three matches by a combined 15-1) and Cuba (which was outscored 16-1), the insider said, stood out: "It was the sort of thing where we sat around and said, 'Yeah, this looks like it's a 99 percent chance that it's bent.'"
The betting-industry insider explained that the irregularities were in what is called "in-running betting" (in which bets are placed during a game on what will happen from that point on) as opposed to "dead-ball betting" that takes place before the game. In-game betting on world soccer is dominated by the Asian market, which he said was producing belief-defying odds swings during several Gold Cup games. The suspicious games weren't just the result of Cuba and Grenada being poor teams, he said.
"With Cuba and Grenada, yes, they're terrible, but there's lots of other teams that are also terrible, and generally those of us in soccer betting are used to pricing out these sorts of games, where you have very good against very bad," he said. "We see them a lot in the World Cup and European Championship qualifying. What I would say is that the odds movements for in-running betting [in Cuba and Grenada's Gold Cup games] were just incredibly, incredibly unusual and extreme. We're talking about five to 10 times what you would typically see. And these extreme odds movements would be subsequently vindicated by what was happening on the field." The industry expert provided several graphs depicting the differences in the Asian market swings in the suspicious Gold Cup games, as well as those in Gold Cup games that weren't suspicious to him. (The federations of Cuba, Grenada and El Salvador have yet to respond to SI.com's request for comments.)
The Gold Cup is just one example of alleged match fixing in an illegal global sports betting economy that's worth in excess of $1 trillion -- with soccer providing the vast majority of the action. Eaton, a former Australian federal police official, worked for 12 years at Interpol before becoming FIFA's head of security in 2010. "At least 24 countries today have active national investigations on [soccer] match-fixing, the majority of which have international connections," Eaton says. "Our investigations have revealed a significant international criminal input into match-fixing in football." In the last year there have been major soccer-related cases in South Korea, Turkey, China, Finland, Nigeria and Malaysia, as well as a host of other nations.
Eaton has visited nearly 40 countries in the past year, and FIFA has allocated $20 million toward working with Interpol while starting full-time investigative offices in Kuala Lumpur (for Asia), Jordan (for the Middle East) and Colombia (for the Americas). Nor is the U.S. excluded from Eaton's purview. "We are very interested in the Central American diaspora in North America," he says, "and the way in which various international friendly matches are often played, taking advantage of the high numbers of their nationals who live in the USA." Eaton adds that inquiries are continuing into figures in the region who are suspected of manipulating FIFA events, "and the same people we think might have been involved also in some matches in the Gold Cup."
While critics argue FIFA needs to do more to combat match-fixing by associating itself with national police forces that have jurisdiction (and not just Interpol), Eaton thinks the rash of recent cases shows that the problem is being addressed -- and that FIFA is on its way toward an achievable goal. "It's absolutely possible to stop it, provided we can have the integrated cooperative mechanisms that involve a combination of police, prosecutors and international sporting bodies willing to combine resources and skills," Eaton says. "We can defeat match-fixing." If that happens, expect more cases to come to light, in our own region and around the world.