For years, Asia has been known around the world as a hot spot for match fixing in football. Especially in Southeast Asia, a region of around 650 million people that stretches from India in the west to China in the East, there are few leagues that haven't had a scandal or two.
Malaysia has been fighting to shake off the scourge of match fixing since football was rocked by a major scandal in the early 1990s. In Laos in 2017, 22 players and officials received lifetime bans by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Just last month, the Football Association of Malaysia confirmed it was investigating two games played in October.
Low salaries that aren't always reliably paid provide fertile ground for gambling gangs based in Southeast Asia and elsewhere to persuade players, coaches or officials to help produce a specific outcome in a game.
Conditions ripe for fixing
"Once clubs stop paying players, then the fixers will start hovering," Steve Darby, who has coached extensively in Southeast Asia with spells in Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Singapore, told DW.
"You have not been paid for three months, you have rent to pay and two children to feed, then someone offers you six months' wage for one game. This, I believe, is the most common reason for fixing."
Author and academic Declan Hill says circumstances in Southeast Asia are almost tailor-made for match fixing
According to investigative journalist and academic Declan Hill, author of "The Fix" and " The Insider's Guide to Match-Fixing in Football," the circumstances in the region are virtually tailor-made for match fixing.
"There is corruption in league officials and teams in places like Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam," Hill told DW. "Then clubs don't pay players and there are systems of hierarchy, where senior players coach and train young players to go along with it."
It's not just Southeast Asia, either. In a 2011 scandal in South Korea's K League (regarded as one of the strongest and most professional in Asia) that involved over 50 players and coaches, what was striking was the small sums — as little as €2,000 ($2,260) — that many players accepted to fix games. Senior players who were working for the fixers were adept at either recruiting teammates or forcing others to be silent.
"To put in a proper fix, the best players have to be involved," said Darby. "They are usually leaders and senior, so young players have very little chance to do anything."
Darby also said he has come across coaches who have accepted money. There are also numerous examples of referees receiving bribes — such as top Chinese referee Gong Jianping, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2003 after he confessed to doing so.
COVID-19 a game changer
The AFC has tried to stamp out the problem, and since 2013 has been working in partnership with Swiss-based sports data company Sportradar to try to combat match fixing. The multinational organization has a large integrity services department that analyzes international sports in order to detect signs of fixing.
Andreas Krannich of Sportradar has worked with the AFC to help combat match fixing
"I was deeply impressed by how seriously the AFC was taking this," said Andreas Krannich, managing director of integrity services at Sportradar. "They became the global leaders in sports integrity. They had a zero-tolerance stance and numbers were going down." In February 2020, Sportradar reported a drop of 21% in match fixing since 2013.
Then came the global pandemic. In the early days, it resulted in leagues being canceled or postponed and games taking place in empty stadiums.
"COVID-19 is a game changer," Krannich said. "It has poured gasoline on the fire."
There is a business reason behind this. As the virus spread, clubs everywhere saw a reduction in revenues. As many tried to cut costs, they looked to reduce their biggest expense: player salaries. Stars at major European clubs agreed to a temporary cut in salaries in 2020 when COVID first hit and games were called off, but players further down the ladder were hit harder by smaller salaries.
Vietnamese player Tran Manh Dung was among nine to be put on trial for alleged match fixing in 2014
"What the fixers quickly understood is that a lot of sports are now suffering financially as a consequence of COVID-19," Hill said. "And where there is far less money, players, referees, coaches, presidents are increasingly vulnerable."
Krannich said criminals, already experts at finding the vulnerabilities of those involved in football, have made use of another universal COVID-19 effect: working remotely.
"In the past, the organized crime groups or lone wolves would have to physically contact players on a one-to-one basis. But now, with digital reach, they shoot a thousand times and will hit one — and the messages are encrypted," he said.
The pandemic also forced fixers to diversify to even lower-level football. Earlier in 2021, Sportradar reported that 40% of suspicious activities in football took place in third-tier leagues and below, including youth matches.
"In early 2020, there was no football," said Krannich. "For bookmakers, this was a bizarre situation. Bookies were desperate to find new sports — and it is the same with fixers. If there is no sport, there is no fixing. They started to look into sports they had never thought about before."
Not just an Asian problem: In 2005, German referee Robert Hoyzer (right) got a lifetime ban for match fixing
Esports is one such field, as the possibility of remote matches makes it relatively resilient to the effects of COVID-19. In June, six professional gamers were banned for time spans from six months to five years for a tournament in 2020 when a player bet against his own team and then paid off his own teammates.
What does the future hold?
In a more complex environment, Hill would like to see police forces get involved as much as possible.
"Fixing is still endemic in Asia. When organizations like Asian police forces have investigated in the past, then there have been arrests and convictions," he said.
Leagues, governing bodies and police forces around the world need to work together.
"Match fixing is an international issue," said Krannich. "At Sportradar, we are an alerting and investigation system, but we are not the police. If the authorities are not taking action, we can detect as much as we want, but nothing will happen.
"It is a global threat."
Edited by: Chuck Penfold