Match Fixing: Football’s Hot Topic For 2014

With the World Cup in Brazil looming but match fixing on the rise, it is to be hoped that 2014 be remembered for sporting reasons rather than for scandals

Match fixing has been described by Jacques Rogge, the former president of the International Olympic Committee, as posing a greater threat to the integrity of sport than doping.  Match fixing usually involves a participant cheating to lose, whereas at least it can be said that doping cheats are trying to win, the key principle of sport.  It destroys the very essence of sport by transforming it from a competition of uncertain outcome, determined by the relative merits of the participants, into a competition where the playing field is not level, the outcome being determined by a sinister influence.

In relation to football, until recently this has principally been an overseas problem concerning countries including Germany, Italy, Turkey, Finland and South Africa.  However, in December 2013, two scandals relating to match/spot fixing sadly came to light in the United Kingdom.  On 5 December 2013, two players from non-league side, Whitehawk FC, were charged with conspiracy to defraud bookmakers, accused of trying to influence the course of football matches and placing bets.  Only four days later, on 9 December 2013, Blackburn Rovers striker, DJ Campbell, and Portsmouth defender, Sam Sodje, were arrested by police investigating alleged spot fixing in Championship and lower division matches.  They were accused of involvement in a scam in which players deliberately tried to earn yellow and red cards to affect betting markets.

There are several legal mechanisms which can be used to combat match fixing.

Historically, match fixers were charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906 which has now been repealed and replaced with the Bribery Act 2010 (for example, Bruce Grobbelaar, John Fashanu and Hans Segers who were accused of taking bribes to fix matches between 1991 and 1995 (they were later acquitted)). 

Next, the Gambling Act 2005 introduced for the first time into English law an offence of “cheating” through gambling.  Under s42, a person commits an offence if he cheats at gambling or does anything for the purpose of enabling or assisting another person to cheat at gambling.  It is immaterial whether a person who cheats improves his chances of winning anything or does win anything.  Cheating at gambling may consist of actual or attempted deception, or interference in connection with the process by which gambling is conducted, or a real or virtual game.  This offence was intended to make it easier to take action against sportsmen suspected of using their insider status to secure financial advantage in betting markets.  It aimed at catching match fixers who, regardless of whether or not they have accepted money, attempt to influence the outcome of a game, or some aspect of it (such as the number of corners conceded) that might form the basis of a spread bet.

The Fraud Act 2006 radically redefined the scope of what were previously the deception offences found in the Theft Acts of 1968 and 1978.  Under s2 of the Fraud Act 2006, which concerns fraud by false representation, a person is in breach if he dishonestly makes a false representation and intends, by making the false representation, to make a gain for himself or another, or to cause loss to another, or to expose another to a risk of loss.  This offence criminalised conduct constituting match fixing that was not caught by the Theft Acts of 1968 and 1978.  The false representation could be, for example, that a footballer is trying to pass the ball to a teammate when in actual fact he is trying to increase the number of corners.  The gain can be to the participant, or another betting ring.  The loss could be to a bookmaker, or to other users of a betting exchange.  It should be noted that the offence is committed where there is intent to make the gain/loss;  it is irrelevant whether in fact a gain was made or a loss inflicted.

Most recently, the Bribery Act 2010, which came into force on 1 July 2011, made significant changes to the UK’s anti-bribery legislation.  It introduced four new criminal offences: bribing another person (section 1); being bribed (section 2); failing to prevent bribery (section 7); and bribing a foreign public official (section 6).  The UK’s anti-bribery regime is now one of the strictest in the world and is extremely wide.  The Act covers not only players of all nationalities competing in the UK, but also players with close connections with the UK competing abroad who are liable to prosecution by the British authorities if they accept, or offer to accept, money or gifts to influence their performance.  Furthermore, in the case of player bribery, if it can be shown that the bribe was paid in order to benefit the player’s employer club, that club may also be liable unless it can show that it has “adequate procedures” designed to prevent its players from engaging in such conduct.  Importantly, however, the section 7 offence applies where an organisation fails to prevent its employees/associated persons paying bribes, rather than failing to prevent them accepting bribes.

Where any of these offences are committed by two or more persons in agreement with each other, then a conspiracy to defraud may exist.  Such a conspiracy may be charged as either a statutory conspiracy, under s1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, or as the common law offence of conspiracy to defraud.  The important aspect of a conspiracy charge is that it is complete on agreement.  Money need not change hands, or if it has, the match to be fixed need not have yet taken place.  The agreement itself is the crime, not the performance of the agreed acts.

With arguably the most competitive Premier League since its inception and the World Cup taking place in Brazil, 2014 promises to be an exciting year for football fans.  It is hoped that it will be remembered for sporting reasons rather than for, as one may fear, further match fixing scandals.

By Neill Blundell, partner and Adam Berry, associate, Eversheds