By Nick Harris
13 May 2010
The Football Association will review how the Gambling Commission handled and dropped a suspected case of match-fixing before deciding whether to proceed with its own action after both bodies were lambasted as “inept” and labelled a “total disgrace” by a senior official from one of the clubs involved.
The game under scrutiny was Forest Green Rovers’ match in the Blue Square Premier at Grays Athletic on 26 April 2009. Betting was suspended after “unusual” bets, at odds of 22-1 or more, that Rovers would lead at half-time but lose. That happened.
Bookmakers said the betting was the strangest they had ever seen: up to £50,000 was made or attempted in bets by hundreds of individuals in an attempted £1m sting.
Alan Alger, the spokesman for Blue Square – sponsors of the division, as well as bookmakers – said at the time the betting looked “extremely dodgy”. Alger went further on a Radio 5 documentary to make the unprecedented declaration – never legally challenged – that he believed the game had been fixed.
The FA initially opened an investigation before quickly turning the case over to the Gambling Commission, which was presented by bookmakers, sources in the industry say, with “clear, irrefutable evidence” that bets were placed by individuals linked to the match, in some cases by residents at players’ addresses.
As sportingintelligence reported last month, the Commission recently wrote to Rovers to say “there is insufficient evidence to prosecute an offence” under the 2005 Gambling Act. Colin Peake, FGR’s secretary, says the Commission appears to have interviewed nobody involved from either club during an “investigation” that is now closed.
Peake’s frustration and anger comes from Rovers being under suspicion without being kept informed of progress; he is also angry at what he calls the “incompetence” of the Commission. He has authority on which to base his views: he is a former policeman with 26 years’ experience in the CID, and he is “flabbergasted” that nobody at either club involved in the match, to his knowledge, has been questioned by any investigatory body.
He was so frustrated about the allegations and lack of action in the aftermath of the publicity around the odd betting that he carried out basic interviews with all staff and players. He also obtained and passed to the FA information about players’ addresses, email accounts, mobile phone numbers, landline details and anything else that could be useful in ascertaining whether there was a fix.
Sportingintelligence understands that bookmakers also co-operated to provide information and there was clear evidence not just of “unusual” betting, but specific bets that supported a fix theory.
“How the hell can you investigate alleged match-fixing and nobody from the club ever gets interviewed? You go and interview people . . . you go and rattle a few cages,” Peake said.
The Commission is understood to have looked solely at whether it could prosecute anyone for the offence of “cheating” as defined by Section 42 of the Gambling Act 2005. The Commission will make no official comment, but sources say it is impossible to link an individual bet to a specific incident that “fixed” the game, ie: to prove for example, that a £50 bet on 25 April 2009 by X then led to Y doing Z in the match, and that Z incident led to the result.
Specific cause and effect would be needed to be proved to use the Act, unless somebody confessed to a conspiracy to defraud, at which point a case and other evidence could be built from there. Colin Peake is angry that apparently there has been no extensive (perhaps any) effort to interrogate suspects, and either prove a match-fixing case, or show, after a thorough investigation, the game was “clean”.
An FA spokesman said: “We intend to fully review the GC investigation and findings before making any comment”.
The case highlights the need for an integrated policy between the GC and governing bodies to tackle sports-betting corruption. A dedicated integrity unit at the Commission has been proposed but is not yet up and running.
There is also lack of clarity and agreement about the specific remit of the GC in such cases, and the role of governing bodies in suspected corruption cases. The GC until now has generally only considered whether criminal prosecutions might be appropriate, not whether there have been serious breaches of sports bodies’ rules.
Nobody claims that match-fixing is easy to identify, prove and prosecute, but equally there are glaring inadequacies in the way some cases have been handled.
In some alleged sports corruption cases, for example, the Commission has tried to find a police force willing to lead an attempted prosecution, but the police have argued (with good reason) they have their hands full with other crime, terrorism and “normal” police work.
So cases have reverted to the Commission, and been put on indefinite hold, or dropped.
The issue of jurisdiction is confusing too: when is a case better handled by the police, the Commission or a governing body? There is no effective framework in place, yet, to make such decisions.
In other cases – across sports as diverse as football, snooker, tennis, cricket, darts, racing and others – there have been reports of malpractice that weren’t criminal but may have involved breaches of governing bodies’ rules, for example in relation to insider information.
But even in these cases, the way they are handled varies from methodically to not at all. Some sports have their own integrity units (racing, cricket, tennis). Most don’t. There are valid questions too about the independence (or not) of sport-specific integrity units funded by sports governing bodies with a vested interest in keeping their sport’s image clean. How robust are they? Who is policing the policemen?
The issue of match-fixing is also complicated by public perception: frankly, not a lot of people really care whether Forest Green v Grays was fixed, or not. Certainly not enough care so that there is a public outcry or demand for action. That is self-evident.
On the other hand, a high-profile “match-fix” case like the one snooker’s John Higgins’ finds himself embroiled in, creates a perception of “bent” snooker, when, thus far, there has been no evidence at all that he has ever fixed anything. Higgins may well land a long ban from snooker’s authorities because of a newspaper sting, but not on the basis of any evidence of fixing presented so far.
Neither the police nor the Commission would consider for a moment a “match fix” case against Higgins based on no bets being placed, on events that were fictitious anyway. Proving crime that exists is hard enough.
In the Forest Green-Grays case, where lots of actual money was wagered on an actual game which had an unusual outcome as predicted by unusual money, Colin Peake is baffled at how it can take so long for the CG to do nothing, and for the case to remain in limbo at the FA. He has now written to Lord Triesman to complain.
“This is total incompetence,” he said. “I know from my policing days that you’ll eventually get to somebody who will talk if they’ve been involved. If you want to eradicate corruption – and we know it exists and you cannot bury your head in the sand and say it doesn’t – then you need proper powers and proper resources to stamp it out.”
Until a few weeks ago, Peake says he had “no idea” the GC alone had been handling the case, and only when complaining last month about lack of progress was he told the GC were still “actively” looking at it, and then a few days later that they had insufficient evidence to take it further.
Peake accepts the betting was unusual, but he would also like a formal – and transparent – investigation to establish what happened in the match, one way or the other.
“I can’t say, hand on heart, that it [the betting] didn’t come across as unusual, but then I watched the match through and through again and nowhere can I see a concerted effort to fix a game. Their equaliser was the luckiest goal you’ll see, the guy running at pace and the ball bouncing back to him off opponent after opponent.
“You couldn’t choreograph that even if you were Ronaldo. In hindsight you could say that incidents of misses and standing off [by players] were strange but you get them in every game.”
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