Many bloggers on corruption and match-fixing in sport have used the latest FIFA scandal to write about what we all knew already. Football is sick. To quote the 18th Century American Politician Patrick Henry, ‘The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.’ We can stretch this quote to apply to two sets of people – the footballers who never received the money, training and supplies from their ‘rulers’ and the football fans, particularly in those countries suffering from corruption, cheated out of the football their countrymen are capable of, if given what they are entitled to (or willing) and even thought to be receiving. But I’d like to talk about theory. To understand why things happen is far more important than documenting what has happened though I greatly enjoy the history of match-fixing, books on which I have commented on.
But who is the Plato of match-fixing? Who is the Keynes of corruption? To my knowledge, there is no one. So why not take the musings of one very smart fellow and apply his theories to match-fixing?
Malcolm Gladwell has written many books on topics such as outliers, randomness and also why things happen. His 2000 novel The Tipping Point, his debut book, attempted to explain, through anecdotes, why things happen. There is a method behind the seeming madness of sociological change. Ideas, products and messages are said to spread like viruses do.
A ‘tipping point’ is described as ‘the moment of critical mass’. It could be argued that now in 2015 we are at the tipping point of match-fixing – both its enactment and its interest from the world. Sport has been in existence for thousands of years and therefore the opportunity for match-fixing has always existed. Indeed, Eupolos of Thessaly, in 388 BC bribed his opponents to lose to him at boxing; in 1919, the Black Sox Scandal occurred with eight players accepting bribes so that heavy gamblers could profit; in 1964, we had the first major soccer betting scandal; but since 2004, there has been the Hoyzer Affair, Calciopoli and Calcioscommesse, myriad accusations and arrests in almost every South-East Asian country; Africa and South America are black holes of fixing and match-fixing even reached second tier Australian ‘local football’. And that’s just football. Horse racing, trotting, cricket, snooker, handball, boxing, tennis, futsal and darts take the number of cases to well over 300. The ones you know about at least.
But it’s the medium through which we see these stories through that has changed. Word of mouth, newspapers, online news, blogs, twitter, youtube (so we can see the fixing on the field) and more, means there is match-fixing content somewhere every minute, every day being uploaded or read.
Are we really at a tipping point or is it just that increased technology makes it appear so? I would certainly say so based off the increases in cases alone. The fact that stories about match-fixing do not even now explain what match-fixing is, is a testament that we - the people - know. In addition, the thousands of stories, sometimes individualised and written about by different authors show the level of interest in countries across the world. Next, the number of social media comments relating to match-fixing is increasing. Even commentators and celebrities are starting to mention it, albeit veiled, whilst they describe the match action. Match-fixing is occurring in new countries (i.e. countries which didn’t even exist before), new countries whose sport is offered for betting and match-fixing is being carried out by more and more different people from all walks of life – organised crime, long-time fixers, petty criminals, chancers, former professionals (who know the inner workings of the game) – from different nationalities across the world. If someone had said that a case would emerge whereby Zambians and Georgians were fixing football matches in Lapland, Finland, at the behest of a Singaporean; or Malaysians would kill the floodlights in a Premier League game for profit, he’d be carted off to the loony bin. But it happened and these stories have not only sparked interest worldwide, but has also led to new match-fixers attempting to one-up the godfathers of fixing.
Match-fixing is an epidemic. Whereas SARS or even street riots get boring, match-fixing grows more interesting the more we know.
Gladwell cites three rules of epidemics. These three rules are fundamental to tipping points.
The Law of the Few
Gladwell states it takes three subsections of the larger populus to create an epidemic – connectors, salesmen and mavens. Since we are discussing either a) the spread of match-fixing (its enactment) or b) its discussion, these three subsections are incredibly easy to locate.
Connectors: These people know everybody and without them, the spread of match-fixing could not occur. These are the bookmaker agents and bookmaker entities across the world. These connect match-fixers to sport, a lot more than often unwittingly. Without being able to ‘get a bet down’, the match-fixer cannot possibly operate. If betting did not exist, match-fixing would only occur for sporting purposes and this is not a sustainable business for the fixer. I have spoken before about gambling and the problems with banning it. Gambling will exist forever for two reasons. 1) We are primates and when we have three oranges, we want four. Stocks and bonds have existed long without professional sport or even the internet to facilitate ‘action’; and 2) gambling has and will always make sport more enjoyable. So, I am not blaming the bookmakers! But, their worldwide connections, the famous ‘Hawala’ system of payout and wide offering of different sports and markets, makes them essential to the spread of match-fixing. And yet, due to them being at the epicentre, bookmakers could, in my opinion, do more to prevent this spread of match-fixing.
Salesmen: The godfathers of match-fixing are all from Singapore. At least 25% of match-fixing has occurred either directly because of Wilson Raj Perumal, Rajendran Kurusamy and Dan Tan Seet Eng or because new fixers read about their exploits. These men sell match-fixing to the players, the coaches, the referees and even sometimes to federations. Whereas bookmakers survive, nay fare better, without match-fixing, it is in match-fixers’ interests for manipulation to flourish. And, with the increase in awareness and the punishments becoming harsher, these salesmen have had to sharpen their skills to continue their line of business. In 2013, Eric Ding Si Yang, famously offered prostitutes to willing referee Ali Sabbagh; the fixers will also now offer more secrecy and also more money. They must continue selling the match-fixing dream to those greedy, disillusioned, foolish or arrogant enough who might be tempted to accept.
Mavens: This is me and you. Every uploader of a match-fixing compilation; every author of a tweet saying ‘it’s rigged’; every blogger; every author of the match-fixing books stored in my library; anyone who calls the referee a cheating bastard. Actually, let’s not get carried away. Mavens are actually few and far between but the informed now speak to a very large audience. It is these mavens who actually sift through the nonsense, the drivel and the bias to explain the complex matter of match-fixing to the masses. Regular readers of my blog will know who these people and entities are. The mavens are six or seven years ahead in knowledge of those who presume to know about this niche of sport; and therefore, they can provide context, deep insight and truth to match-fixing. When the bias has been sieved, what’s left is an incredibly complex and interesting history which in turns leads to wider interest.
Since we are at the zenith of connectors (undeniably), salesmen (indisputably) and mavens (undoubtedly), we can tick off Gladwell’s first rule of tipping points. Match-fixing passes ‘The Law of the Few’.
The second prerequisite of a tipping point is ‘stickiness’. Simply put, you can have a product, event or pastime which is championed by the connectors, salesmen and mavens, but the buzz will die if the characteristics of the thing lead to the audience being bored or it is simply not sustainable to reach and surpass a tipping point. In truth, stickiness appears to be somewhat unquantifiable and prone to survivorship bias (i.e. something is sticky because it stuck’). So, this rule is a little more subjective but bear with me. I contend that match-fixing is stickier than the bedsheets in a Leicester City hotel room in Thailand (I actually found this story disgraceful but it was a good line!). Firstly, to the audience, particularly if they are gamblers, match-fixing can now be called upon to excuse a loss; also, celebrity sportsmen such as Hansie Cronje, Chris Cairns, Manny Pacquiao (fight vs. Bradley - judge), Kieron Fallon, Ander Herrera, Nikolai Davydenko and John Higgins have either been accused of, convicted of or associated with match-fixing. In addition, to the match-fixers, their chosen profession is proven to be sticky by the amazingly long careers of Rajendran Kurusamy, Wilson Raj Perumal and Dan Tan Seet Eng. Indeed, at the ripe old age of 67, Kurusamy was recently picked up for attempting to fix the SEA Games. This is a man who went to prison for match-fixing 20 years ago! One can cite many reasons for why fixers love fixing. The buzz, the lack of barriers to entry, the lack of relatively harsh penalties and of course the money!
The Power of Context
The third key constant in any tipping point is the environment. Say a growing epidemic has the people spreading the word (connectors, salesmen and mavens), the product, event or pastime is ‘sticking with the masses’, but the atmosphere is wrong or the ‘wave’ arrived ahead of its time, the tipping point of critical mass is never realised. It blows over like so many fads before. One example of a poor environment for match-fixing would be extremely high wages of players and officials. In actual fact, the current environment for match-fixing could not be more perfect.
1) The wages are low across a large number of sports including football. This is the key environmental issue.
2) Sports are offered for betting with the players hailing from countries where corruption is embedded.
3) The penalties for match-fixing are still low enough to entice match-fixers.
4) Organised crime is now firmly embedded within sport; one could argue it is at an all-time high. Players are now the drug mules and match-fixing is the invisible product – untraceable to but the savviest of sniffer dogs.
5) There is a convoluted mixture of legal, ‘grey’ and illegal bookmakers, creating confusion (particularly in jurisdictional matters). Many bookmakers are also now sponsoring sports teams and competitions. They are never out of sight, almost encouraging fixers to ply their craft.
6) Bitcoin is for all intents and purposes completely anonymous and therefore perfect for match-fixing payments
7) There are now a hundred stories of successful match-fixes with the profits readily available to view.
8) The different social media applications means the spread of match-fixing commentary (as well as approaches by fixers) is easier and more effective than it’s ever been.
One of the largest and most deathly epidemics in human existence is AIDS. And whilst match-fixing cannot be compared to AIDS in gravity, the resemblances are uncanny and its spread and the methods to combat it can lead us in the right direction regarding match-fixing.
Match-fixing will be the death of football. If 100% of games are fixed, football will no longer exist just as AIDS would have done serious damage had the condom not been invented or education prioritised.
AIDS is on the decline. One can support this with any number of statistics:
Globally, the number of new HIV infections continues
to fall. There were 2.3 million new HIV infections
[1.9 million–2.7 million] in 2012. This is the lowest number
of annual new infections since the mid-to-late 1990s,
when approximately 3.5 million [3.3 million–4.1 million]
people were acquiring HIV every year.
The number of new HIV infections has declined globally by 21% since the estimated peak of the epidemic in 1997
The drop in new HIV infections is most pronounced among
children. From 2001 to 2012 the number of children
newly infected with HIV dropped by 52%––from 550 000
[500 000–620 000] in 2001 to 260 000 [230 000–320 000]
I will leave the reasons for the spread of AIDS to Gladwell or an epidemiologist. But the reasons for its decline are more interesting – as each and every one has a parallel with the potential solutions to match-fixing.
· Education (tailored match-fixing education)
· Increased resources and political leadership (governments to play an active role in combatting match-fixing such as New Zealand)
· The Condom (technology)
· Treatment (how to deal with a fixer)
Gladwell explained to the masses why epidemics occur; he certainly did not have match-fixing in mind. That his rules transfer so seamlessly to match-fixing is a testament to how much match-fixing is (an ignored) epidemic. And yet, the solutions are there once we treat it like a virus and not the elephant in the room.