On a cool September night the lights are still burning in the second-floor room of an otherwise deserted office block, tucked away off a nondescript residential street in the centre of Europe. Inside the room, three men sit huddled around a glow of computer terminals and television screens, peering intently at a rapidly shifting sequence of betting odds. On the desks beside them, mobile phones are kept at the ready for any incoming tip-offs from a pool of informant scattered in stadiums or in front of similar screens around the world, all of them looking out for the type of unusual events or fluctuations in betting patterns that can help win or lose fortunes.
The three men following this latest round of FIFA World Cup™ qualifying matches are not, however, out to make any fortunes of their own. In fact they are not placing a single euro on the outcome of any of the matches they are watching. Instead they are monitoring the games - and specifically the betting patterns around the games - in order to alert world football's governing body to any possible indication of match tampering.
This modest office, located in the Swiss city of Zurich, is the headquarters of Early Warning System (EWS), a gambling surveillance firm set up originally as a pilot project to monitor betting on the 2006 FIFA World CupTM in Germany, before being formally established in July 2007 as a FIFA subsidiary company. In its short existence, the company has built up ties with more than 400 sports betting providers who have contractually agreed to report any irregular betting activities as soon as they are noticed. The firm's services have also been extended to other members of the football family, including monitoring programmes for FIFA member associations and club competitions such as the AFC Champions League, and even beyond football. In 2008, EWS was asked by the International Olympic Committee to check for any suspicious betting patterns related to the Beijing Games.
On this particular September day, the team has been at work since the early afternoon, first following a handful of qualifiers in Africa before moving on to a busy evening of European action. Shortly after FIFA World is shown in, there are early penalties for England and Germany, and a sending-off for the French goalkeeper in France's top-of-the-table clash with Group 7 rivals Serbia. On each occasion, the normal betting patterns can be seen, with the goals and red cards leading to temporary suspensions of the market on the individual games, allowing the bookmakers to readjust the odds in line with what has just happened, before they open up again.
As well as following the range of odds being offered on each game, Early Warning System's software includes an instant messaging service which any of the bookmakers can use to flag up unusual patterns - or especially large bets being placed on unlikely eventualities. Just as in football, yellow and red cards are used to denote the seriousness of the potential threat, but on this particular match-night the flurry of activity on the various football pitches has not been matched by any signs of suspicious betting activity.
"That is generally what we would expect on a night like this," says EWS Head of Strategy Wolfgang Feldner as he settles in for a late shift that will continue through the early hours of the morning to take in the qualifiers in South America. "There are so many teams right now who still have a chance of qualifying for the World Cup and, in Europe at least, so many players who are already extremely well paid at this level, that it is hard to imagine many of them being prepared to jeopardise their team's World Cup qualification."
This is the main reason - the majority of sports fans around the world focus on the decisive games affecting some of the biggest teams - that Feldner and his team are keeping a watchful eye on the "lesser" games, where little is at stake - in sporting terms at least.
"There have been a few unexpected results already, such as the Faroe Islands beating Lithuania," Feldner says, while pointing to his screen. "But, judging by the volume of gambling which we can estimate from the betting exchanges, there was relatively little money being placed on that game, so there does not appear to have been anything unusual there in terms of gambling."
More than results
The rapid growth of interest in live gambling during matches - as opposed to the traditional style of gambling where bets were all placed before the games kick off - and the increasingly complex variety of bets on offer means, however, that it is not just the results of the match that matter. While European gamblers have traditionally favoured the simple predictions of "win, draw or lose", there are other types of bet which are growing in popularity, some of which are more open to potential abuse by those looking to influence the course of a game.
The EWS team are constantly monitoring the market in "Asian handicap" bets, where stronger teams are handed a fictional handicap by the bookmakers of one or more goals (or even fractions of goals) against them, thereby creating more tightly-balanced encounters out of potentially predictable games. They also look out for unusual patterns in "over-under" betting, where gamblers try to predict whether the total number of goals scored in a game will be above or below the amount forecast by the bookmaker or, in the case of betting exchanges, by other gamblers.
"Bets like these can bring money into games that would otherwise not attract much interest," explains Feldner. "Earlier today, for example, we had the Czech Republic beating San Marino 7-0. In that particular case, there were no signs of anything irregular - either in sporting or gambling terms. But in general these types of bets could be more attractive to someone wanting to influence a match. In the more traditional result-based form of gambling, it is very hard to actually engineer a result or an exact score. But if you have the means of bribing a couple of strikers, for example, and telling them their team can still win, just not by as big a margin as people might expect - well, it's not as likely that people will pay attention to a game that should have been won 5-0 but only ended up 2-0 or 3-0."
Early Warning System, however, was created to spot exactly these sort of discrepancies and then use its contacts both within and outside the gambling industry to investigate further. If substantial evidence of match-rigging is found, EWS would then pass on the evidence to FIFA. Reassuringly, when it comes to the highest level of the sport, the team has yet to identify any signs of match-rigging, neither at the 2006 FIFA World Cup nor in any of the qualifying matches to date for the 2010 edition.
"What we can say with confidence is that we have seen no evidence of suspicious betting patterns going on in any of these international matches," EWS Head of Competition Analysis Detlev Zenglein told FIFA World. "But just because we have not found any evidence, that does not of course mean that no illegal activity has taken place. When it comes to comparisons with other areas of sporting corruption, such as in the fight against anti-doping we are at a early stage. If you take a 100 metres race as an analogy for how far we have come, then I would say we have only recently heard the starter's pistol."
As with all anti-corruption fights, it takes increasingly sophisticated surveillance methods to expose increasingly sophisticated criminals and the EWS team has already identified the next steps to be taken. The seven-month break between the end of the World Cup qualifiers in November and the start of the tournament itself in June will be used to enhance the company's software systems. EWS also hopes to make their detection methods less reliant on voluntary information supplied by the bookmakers, ideally by entering into arrangements whereby the bookmakers would have to reveal the amount of turnover taking place on individual matches, as the money comes in.
"This is important, because right now we can only estimate the amount of betting taking place, based upon what we see on betting exchanges," explains Zenglein. "Obviously it makes a big difference if someone has placed a single bet of half a million dollars, or if, say, half a million people have placed bets of a dollar each. The bookmakers have traditionally been reluctant to reveal turnover figures, but many of them are starting to come round to the idea now, after seeing the advantages of cooperating with monitoring services such as ours."
To help persuade the bookmakers, another proposal is being worked upon, to set clearly defined standards of cooperation between bookmakers and EWS. In the longer term, the people charged with monitoring sports gambling would like to see a consistent code of practice in place to ensure that all those involved in the industry are playing to the same rules.
"I think a worldwide code for gambling that everybody had to sign up for would be an interesting and healthy step," says Zenglein. "Something like that would help to further define the relationship between sporting authorities and the gambling industry, and would ensure that all the various associations and confederations were working on the same legal basis when it comes to an issue that is very important for the future integrity of football."
This article is from the October issue of FIFA World, the new FIFA magazine. You can read every issue of FIFA World online by clicking the link on the right.