Soccer match-rigging, straight out of a Gibson novel

Here's a brutal, must-read article from Brian Phillips detailing the bizarre, globalized game of soccer-match-rigging, which launders its influence, money and bets through countries all over the world, in what sounds like an intense, sport-themed LARP of a William Gibson Sprawl novel:

Right now, Dan Tan's programmers are busy reverse-engineering the safeguards of online betting houses. About $3 billion is wagered on sports every day, most of it on soccer, most of it in Asia. That's a lot of noise on the big exchanges. We can exploit the fluctuations, rig the bets in a way that won't trip the houses' alarms. And there are so many moments in a soccer game that could swing either way. All you have to do is see an Ilves tackle in the box where maybe the Viikingit forward took a dive. It happens all the time. It would happen anyway. So while you're running around the pitch in Finland, the syndicate will have computers placing high-volume max bets on whatever outcome the bosses decided on, using markets in Manila that take bets during games, timing the surges so the security bots don't spot anything suspicious. The exchanges don't care, not really. They get a cut of all the action anyway. The system is stacked so it's gamblers further down the chain who bear all the risks.

What's that — you're worried about getting caught? It won't happen. Think about the complexity of our operation. We are organized in Singapore, I flew from Budapest, the match is in Finland, we're wagering in the Philippines using masked computer clusters from Bangkok to Jakarta. Our communications are refracted across so many cell networks and satellites that they're almost impossible to unravel. The money will move electronically, incomprehensibly, through a hundred different nowheres. No legal system was set up to handle this kind of global intricacy. The number of intersecting jurisdictions alone is dizzying. Who's going to spot the crime? Small-town police in Finland? A regulator in Beijing? Each of them will only see one tiny part of it. How would they ever know to talk to each other? Dan Tan has friends in high places; extradition requests can find themselves bogged down in paperwork. Witnesses can disappear. I promise; you'll be safe. Who can prove you didn't see a penalty? We're fine.

Best part? Pro soccer is so corrupt that they don't give a damn, despite the fact that there is no game there, just a network of frauds that may exceed $1B:

Let me answer that question by referring you to the phrase that I hope will be your primary takeaway from this piece. Soccer. Is. Fucked. Europol announced the investigation Monday, leaving everyone with the impression that this was an ongoing operation designed to, you know, stop a criminal, maybe catch a bad guy or something. On Tuesday, multiple journalists reported that Europol is no longer pursuing the investigation. They've turned the information over to the dozens of prosecution services in the dozens of countries involved, which should keep things nice and streamlined. The man at the center of the whole story, the Singaporean mobster Tan Seet Eng, known as Dan Tan, has a warrant out for his arrest, but the Singaporeans won't extradite him and Interpol won't pressure them to do so.3 UEFA and FIFA talk about stamping out corruption, but, and I'll try to be precise here, FIFA rhetoric is to action what a remaindered paperback copy of Pippi in the South Seas is to the Horsehead Nebula. FIFA is eyeballs-deep in its own corruption problems, being run, as it is, by a cabal of 150-year-olds, most of them literally made out of dust, who have every incentive to worry about short-term profit over long-term change. They all have streets named after them, so how could they have a bad conscience? FIFA sees the game as a kind of Rube Goldberg device, or, better, as a crazed Jenga tower, and their job is to keep it standing as long as the money's coming in. Doesn't matter how wobbly it gets. Nobody look at the foundations.

Match-Fixing in Soccer [Brian Phillips/Grantland]

(via Schneier)

(Image: FIFA visita as obras da Arena Fonte Nova, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from agecombahia's photostream)


  1. If all the game fixing amounts to bribing referees, the solution is to have a pool of referees with random, blind game assignments with no access to communications after assignment.

    If you don’t know who to bribe, or the person you’re bribing doesn’t know which way to impact the game, you can’t fix the result.

  2. “The system is stacked so it’s gamblers further down the chain who bear all the risks.”

    Sounds a lot like Wall Street.

  3. Soccer is a random game anyway. Here’s the rational:
    – imagine there’s 10% difference between the two teams.
    – Well, first imagine there’s 10% difference between two 100m runners (the 1st one is gold, the 2nd one won’t even qualify for the nationals), or two Tour de France Cyclist (the 2nd one would arrive 2 days later). So we agree that in pro sport 10% of difference is HUGE.
    – Now apply this to, for instance, basketball where there’s an average of, let’s say, 100 points per game. It means that one team will score 65 vs 55 on average. Still pretty significant.
    – Now apply this to soccer with an average of ONE point per match. It means that if you ran about TEN games between them, one team would score about 6 times and the other one about 5 times. Now pick a game at random in there: half the time the weakest (and we admit that 10% is a huge difference) team wins.

    Hence soccer is a shit random game. There’s also another rational that explains that the more random a sport outcome is, the most rabid the supporters, but that’s another story.

      1. Do you have independent reasons for thinking the NFL is at risk?
        Because this scandal provides no reason for thinking so. Rigging mostly refs or players at low levels who earn very little with the refs being assigned by minor leagues doesn’t translate well to the NFL. NFL refs are paid much more in comparison and have a single organization overlooking their performance.

      2.  I was just thinking about this. I don’t think you could do this kind of thing at all with football simply because it is not a world-wide sport. That seems to be the big key.

  4. I was understanding him fine until I ran across this:

    “FIFA rhetoric is to action what a remaindered paperback copy of Pippi in the South Seas is to the Horsehead Nebula.”

    1. It does seem unlikely that a book as popular as any of the Pippi Longstocking series would wind up in a remainder bin.

  5. I think this is something that we all knew was going on. Think about it, it’s a sport that’s played all around the world. This doesn’t surprise me one bit!

  6. Hmmm.  Not sure about some of the points in the article that are completely out of context. For example, the goal in the footnote which he claims is “hard to explain” is actually very easy to explain.  Football referees don’t use video evidence and can’t magically see an aerial shot.  It is perfectly possible to make that sort of mistake especially when you’re human.  Don’t forget that for every goal like that disallowed there’s a Russian linesman who’ll help you out.  Linking in every dodgy ref decision with corruption gets us nowhere.  Of course, there’s an easy solution to it but that’s a different story.

    Another point seemingly missed is that there’s an awful lot of clubs out there desperately struggling for money at the moment who surely should be rolling in bribes if it’s so widespread?

    Don’t get me wrong, there’s far too much corruption in the game but I don’t see how that means the entire sport should be dismissed.

  7. I’ve always assumed most pro “sports” were rigged to begin with.  Far too much money involved to just let these things be determined by skill and luck.

    “Bread and circuses” bankrupted Rome but modern day sports keeps the mob opiated *and* turns huge profits.

  8. Yet another reason I like my sports like I like my “spirituality”…  not organized.  Well, unless it was organized by mother nature, that is:

  9. Is it me or are there and alarming lack of comments attached to an article posted 12 hours earlier. Could it be indicative of my feelings toward the sport (professional version)? which is “meh.”

  10. Brian Phillips, by the way, is the author of the Pro Vercelli story, the single best gaming epic ever to appear on the Internet. It’s even better than the Saga of Boatmurdered. Few who have read it will ever forget Phillips’s detestation of Walter Columbo, the fantastically incompetent assistant coach who is an entire Bartleby constructed from a couple of statistics. Seek this out. It’s magic, and also utterly insane.

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