LONDON: Fears are growing of criminal match-fixing gangs increasing their focus on lower-league football in particular as governments’ Covid-19 measures maintain a total ban or capacity restrictions on the presence of fans.

David Lampitt, managing director of sports partnerships at Sportradar, which tracks match-fixing activity worldwide, said: “The risk and threat of match-fixing is ever present, but the financial blow that the coronavirus has dealt to football with many teams relying on match-day income, which is non-existent and may remain so for the foreseeable future, has increased that risk.

“There is now potentially a greater temptation for criminal activity at clubs which are facing financial difficulties, where many players are getting reduced wages or, in some cases, not being paid at all.

“This increases the chances that players can become susceptible, and these individuals are poised to take advantage of the financial distress faced by players. In addition, the clubs themselves can become more susceptible to investment or takeover from criminal groups seeking to exploit them for match-fixing and other corrupt purposes.”

Lampitt, a former ceo of Portsmouth, noted matchfixing as a multi-million pound industry for criminal groups.

He added: “These criminal individuals know that match-fixing carries a lower risk of prosecution compared to drug smuggling and people trafficking, especially as fixed football matches are not always a focus for national and international law enforcement.”

Sportradar uses its Fraud Detection System (FDS) to track the betting on football across the globe, including in this country and in the burgeoning Asian markets.

Lampitt said: “We estimate that in the UK alone, punters placed more than £18.3 billion in football bets during 2019 across both regulated and unregulated channels while global betting on UK football, flowing through regulated and unregulated markets, surpassed €90bn in that same period.

“Through our integrity expertise and technology, we track these betting markets, not just on UK football, but on the sport throughout the world, and if we see unusual betting patterns we report them to the relevant governing bodies and authorities, who can then take the appropriate action.

“Through our contracts with FIFA, we monitor the top divisions of football in almost every football-playing nation around the world as well as international matches and major regional club competitions like UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League and their qualification rounds.”

UEFA’s ground-breaking disciplinary action against Albanian champions KS Skenderbeu, which was supported by Sportradar, shows that even this high level of competition can be a target for match-fixers.

Current data showed that Covid-19 had increased the percentage of matches logged as “likely to have been manipulated”.

Lampitt added: “For instance, across the first eight months of this year, football saw a near 30 per cent reduction in suspicious matches.

“However, this needs to be qualified by the fact that there had been a near 50 per cent reduction in the number of football matches played compared to 2019 due to Covid-19.

“So actually, the relative risk of match-fixing increased through the first eight months of 2020 – and that trend is likely to continue.

“We have seen a rise in match-fixing in domestic third-tier leagues and below, including youth leagues. A lack of integrity provisions at these levels of the game have likely led to this situation, and this is why Sportradar strongly believe in a proactive approach involving education and prevention to keep players away from these risks.”

Europe and Asia had been the two areas most impacted by match-fixing.

Historically, the second and third tier domestic leagues are those that witness the highest number of suspicious matches, and this is because match-fixers can offer attractive bribes relative to player salaries, aided by the fact that highly liquid betting markets are still available for such matches, particularly in the Asian betting market.

Across global sport, Sportradar reported 661 sporting events as highly suspicious and likely to have been manipulated in 2019, with 576 (87 per cent) of these being football matches.