Federbet, the betting monitoring organisation, has come in for some flak over the years, but increasingly its findings are being vindicated. The Sports Integrity Initiative interviewed Federbet’s General Secretary, Francesco Baranca, who is bullish about its prospects, and unrelenting in its defence.
Last month police in Wales arrested eleven people over allegations of fixing a Premier League match earlier in the year. Of particular interest was Port Talbot Town Football Club. Over two years beforehand, Federbet, an anti-corruption agency based in Belgium, published its Annual Fixed Matches Report. In it it identified two Welsh Premier League games as having been corrupted; one involved Port Talbot.
Why, therefore, did it take two years from these initial allegations for any action to occur? Why did it take repeated allegations to enforce this action, and not the initial warning?
Federbet is an international non-profit organisation which operates by monitoring odds to detect any suspicious betting patterns. Its precise methods, however, and how it extrapolates from these patterns to bona fide fixes, are yet to be published. Despite this, Federbet isn’t afraid to make bold claims; in 2014 it stated that more match-fixing took place in England than anywhere else in the world that season. This was despite the fact that every week, European betting houses were removing swathes of matches from leagues in the likes of Albania, Bulgaria and Cyprus, because they clearly reflected signs of being fixed. Federbet quickly accumulated critics, who found its supporting evidence lacking, or at the very least insufficiently explained.
In flagging these betting patterns at what is often a very early stage in the investigation process, and by labeling it as match-fixing, Federbet are in danger of mistakenly tarnishing a sport prematurely – a case of ‘if the odds drop enough it must be a fix’.
Ben Rumsby, the Daily Telegraph Sports News Correspondent, warned that Federbet’s 2015 match-fixing report should be treated with ‘extreme caution’ as it had ‘made mistakes before’. Other critics have been even more damning; ‘a lobbying organisation aiming to change EU law for the benefit of bookmakers,’ wrote one.
The allegation of collusion with bookmakers, through which Federbet is entirely funded, is a frequent one. Last year, Federbet was forced to take the Malta Football Association (MFA) to court; the MFA had claimed that evidence that Federbet had given to the European Parliament about match-fixing in Maltese league football had been driven by commercial interests. ‘Commercial betting monitoring,’ remarked Chris Eaton, the former Interpol officer and now the Director of Integrity at the International Centre for Sports Security (ICSS), is ‘becoming inherently conflicted.’
Federbet’s general secretary, Francesco Baranca, is robust in his defence. “We are interested in getting sport clean,” explains Baranca. “We have to try to start prevention and involve all stakeholders – the clubs, the leagues, the bookmakers, and everyone else in trying to solve the problem.”
“As a confederation, or a league, they will always say that we [Federbet] have to shut up,” Baranca complains. “They say they want to catch the big fish, and that they are not interested in the little fish.
“So when we go public and talk about our findings, we do this deliberately. We want to talk because we see that when we talk about an issue, they [the fixers] stop doing it. It’s like a provocation, like a disruption. We talk about fixing in the hope that they will stop doing this.
“Believe me, if we didn’t talk about the Albanian team [Skënderbeu, a football club recently embroiled in match-fixing allegations], no one would do anything about it.”
When it is put to Baranca that Federbet might on occasion prematurely flag fixes, Baranca retaliates.
“We are always talking in advance. We are not the people that are waiting until we say this, or we say that. No, we have always done this – we argue that we are brave, or maybe that we are justified to talk about this.
“We say always in advance what we consider. And every time that we have reported something to the police, on each occasion the police have found evidence supporting our allegations. In the last three years, all the big inquiries about football and match-fixing have come from Federbet,” Baranca says proudly.
This is certainly true of the Wales incident, and similar stories are to be found in Malta, Cyprus and Italy among other countries, but on other occasions it is more difficult to corroborate. Many investigations are still ongoing, others have proven inconclusive.
“We had a lot of difficulty when we first started – no one believed us, or our findings,” says Baranca, who left a career as a legal counsel and Head of the Legal Department for one of the biggest betting companies in Europe, to found Federbet in 2011. “They said that we were crazy, that we were inventing things to try to kidnap the league, or the club, and so on.”
Baranca refuses to concede that the earlier versions of Federbet’s match-fixing reports contained mistakes. “The criticism we get is always claiming that our findings are not true, or questioning where we get our data from, or why we are talking publicly so early on.
“When there is no ensuing investigation by the authorities, it is very easy for critics to say, ‘Ah, it’s not true!’ But we publish numbers – you cannot lie about the numbers.”
Perhaps, therefore, it was an error of communication; Federbet could have made it clearer, when reporting on initial betting irregularities, that they’re not saying, ‘This match has been fixed,’ but instead saying, ‘There is suspicious betting.’
“Yes, this I agree,” concedes Baranca. “Maybe it was a mistake of communication. It was also our power, because it was like saying that there was a problem in a different way. Maybe we weren’t wrong but then also in the beginning I think it was necessary to say it like this in order to get the attention. Now it is different, it is absolutely different – if we don’t say anything, no action will be taken.”
In June this year, Federbet published its latest Annual Fixed Matches Report. The overriding message is that sporting bodies are failing to respond to the threat. Federbet claim that sports federations have failed to keep it informed about the progress of any investigations. In one instance, Federbet claim that the Croatian volleyball federation (HOS) had even asked them for €5,000 to help investigate Federbet’s information on fixed Croatian volleyball games.
Baranca laughs when he refers to the Croatia incident. “We had a bad experience with volleyball in Croatia,” explains Baranca. “And when we published what had happened, they said, ‘Oh come on, we were joking!’” Baranca doesn’t specify the exact amount Federbet charges to monitor certain leagues or matches, but is clear that it is far, far less than some leagues have claimed. He dismisses their cry that Federbet’s fees inhibit any cooperative investigations. “Peanuts,” says Baranca. “It’s peanuts – these claims that we were asking for millions of Euros? These I don’t understand.”
While some experiences have left Baranca delusioned, others have just left him frustrated, he says. FC Skënderbeu of Albania were sanctioned for match-fixing earlier this year; Federbet says it has been reporting their matches to authorities for the last four years.
“In reporting the Champions League and Europa League matches involving Skënderbeu, the possibility that these matches were regular [i.e. not fixed], according to our results, was one in at least 250,” says Baranca. “That’s an incredibly rich number.”
If Federbet is so right, as Baranca insists, and increasingly being vindicated, why therefore are its methods still so guarded? Surely it is in the public interest to know how they get the results that they do, for reasons of collective collaboration if nothing else.
“There is no secret about our monitoring,” says Baranca. “Some people are saying that we have this incredible way to check the market, but it is the same for everyone. There is no legend.”
“We do use double methods – one is checking the global market, and the second one is taking reports from the data analysis available to us. Over the last year we have developed our methods with the University of Lugano [Switzerland], and we are getting very good results.
One might assume that a danger of revealing anti-match-fixing methods might be that it provides a means for match-fixers to evade the likes of Federbet. Baranca himself explains that this would not be the case. “Match-fixing is very simple,” he says. “You need to get a profit, so there is always evidence. You cannot find the methods to hide the evidence of match-fixing. It is impossible.”
“It is a question of simple scientific methods around these algorithms, so I think that in one or two months we could give it to the public.”
Watch this space.
Federbet’s prospects appear to be on the rise. Their initial warnings, despite perhaps being over-zealously communicated, are increasingly being proven correct. However just as Federbet’s findings are on the rise, the blight of match-fixing as a whole increases too. Baranca on this at least, is not so enthusiastic.
“It’s not depressing for us,” Baranca says, somewhat reassuringly. “We are getting good results – like our work with Italy’s Serie B, their second division [football].” Spain, at least, is a success story in Federbet’s eyes. “La Liga,” Baranca explains, “Is the only league that really wants to have clean football. Here we provide integrity services for.”
“The aim is still to try and solve a problem. In the beginning I used to get angry every time I saw something strange in Malta, for example.”
“I was getting crazy and saying, ‘Come on – how can they not realise this?’ Now I’m more realistic; I think that everyone knows [about match-fixing], but no one wants to do anything. So what can I do?
“At the beginning I used to dream, but now I am realistic – and I know that this can’t be the way to go – they are lost. I think that there are some countries that we will never be able to fight match-fixing.”
Baranca’s final statement is a hammer blow. “Malta, Lithuania, Cyprus, Greece,” Baranca nonchalantly reels off a list of names. “These countries – they are really in a bad, bad way.”
A glimpse into the future of match-fixing paints a daunting picture – of fixers able to infiltrate a growing international market, and sporting bodies increasingly deterred from taking action due to the associated reputational damage. Baranca, however, is bullish, especially when it comes to Federbet’s role in combating match-fixing.
“The cheaters,” he says, with an air of finality. “They are afraid of the check of Federbet.”