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Investigation finds football friendlies at greater risk of manipulation

| By Robert Fletcher
A lack of regulatory oversight puts friendly matches in football at greater risk of match-fixing, according to a new report published today (1 December).

The investigation, conducted between 2016 and 2020, found suspicious activity in more than 250 friendlies involving European clubs.

Combating Match Fixing in Club Football Non-Competitive Friendlies, which was funded by the European Commission’s Erasmus+ programme and led by the University of Nicosia Research Foundation also surveyed 700 players, in Cyprus, Greece and Malta.

Of this number, 26.5% said they played in a club friendly they suspected had been manipulated.

More than a quarter (26.3%) of attempts to fix a friendly match were made by club officials, and 15.0% by other players.

“The combination of a lack of regulation, oversight and information makes these matches easier to manipulate than competitive matches,” lead investigator Professor Nicos Kartakoullis of the University of Nicosia said.

“This research shows that in terms of governance, friendly matches need to be considered just like competitive matches.”

The investigation concluded that international and national football federations were slow to establish where responsibility lies for friendlies. In particular, when clubs from different countries are involved in non-competitive matches played in a third, neutral country, there was little regulatory oversight. 

Some European football federations, it noted, do not track where clubs go on pre-season and mid-winter tours to play friendly games. This lack of governance, coupled with the widespread availability of these matches on betting markets around the world – particularly in jurisdictions such as Curaçao and the Philippines – leaves them at greater risk of manipulation.

Data for these matches, investigators pointed out, is readily accessible to all operators, unlike competitive matches, which are generally covered by agreements between data providers and tournament organisers. This often means it is collected and sold to unregulated operators that do not feed into integrity monitoring systems, something researchers said was a blind spot in terms of market and consumer protection.

A series of recommendations were therefore made, starting with a call for European football governing body Uefa to ensure all its 55 member associations enforce regulation of friendlies.

It also recommended match agents be barred from owning or controlling clubs, which is already the case for player agents, while a new body should be established to represent match agents in future negotiations on regulation with international bodies such as Uefa or Fifa.

In addition, the report recommended new data standards be established, to prevent the sale of live match data to poorly regulated and unregulated betting operators.

The report was complied with support from associations such as EU Athletes, the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) and players’ unions from Cyprus, Greece and Malta, as well as input from the International Betting Integrity Association.

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