POLICE EXAMINE 2-1 'WIN’ FOR UNDERDOGS IN ALLEGED SCAM THAT EVEN SAW BELARUSIAN CLUBS’ PUBLISH FULL MATCH REPORTS
It was the kind of comeback of which Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United would have been proud. One-nil down with minutes remaining – and with their opponents having missed a penalty and dominated the game – FC Slutsk scored two late goals to snatch a 2-1 victory against Shakhter Soligorsk.
The match reports on the official websites of both clubs recounted a truly dramatic encounter between the Belarusian Premier League pair just over a fortnight ago.
Slutsk would have been underdogs from the start, having spent just one season in the top flight, in which they had twice lost against a Shakhter side involved in the Europa League this season and which previously graced the Champions League. Indeed, Slutsk had been in the country’s third tier as recently as four years ago, making a victory against Shakhter a surprise in itself, never mind the manner of it.
All this would have been reflected in the odds offered before and during the game by bookmakers such as bet365 and SBOBET, odds that should have been increasingly in Shakhter’s favour.
Except most people backing them were doomed to lose from the outset, because FC Slutsk 2 Shakhter Soligorsk 1 was always going to be the final score of a match Inside Sport can reveal never took place.
Slutsk v Shakhter was, in fact, the latest and arguably most serious example of what has been dubbed colloquially as a 'ghost’ game.
The newest weapon in the armoury of the match-fixer, a ghost game is a fictitious fixture designed to defraud bookmakers and rip off honest punters as part of a global betting market in which £90 billion is laundered annually.
It is perpetrated either by corrupt employees of teams or of sports data-gathering firms, those with the computing skills to plant false information, or any combination of the three.
The threat of 'ghost’ games has been known about for several years but Slutsk v Shakhter was only the fourth documented example.
It was during the course of investigating the phenomenon that Inside Sport received a tip-off about suspicions over the fixture, eventually culminating in Shakhter confirming this week that it had not taken place.
The Belarusian Football Association also revealed that it had opened an investigation and that police had become involved.
It is understood that suspicion has fallen on a man who has previously worked for data-gathering firms in attending matches and relaying in‑game incidents as they happen.
FC Shakhter have denied any wrongdoing, claiming that a “hacker” had hidden a fake match report on their website.
FC Slutsk have yet to comment and did not respond to requests to do so by Inside Sport.
However, one of the bookmakers duped into offering a market on the game has claimed that it paid out on the result after contacting the club for confirmation that the match did take place.
Bill Mummery, executive director of Celton Manx, which operates SBOBET, said: “I have a statement from FC Slutsk, 'Yes, the match was SFC Slutsk-SFC Shakhter. The match took place on Feb 3 at 3pm in Pinsk. The first half ended 1-0 in favour of FC Shakhter. Second half 2-1 in favour of FC Slutsk. With respect, Press Attache, SFC Slutsk.’ ”
Mummery refused to pass on the correspondence, citing data protection, but his testimony adds further intrigue to an extraordinary tale. As does what is purported to be a deleted page from Slutsk’s website dated Jan 5, which advertised the fixture with Shakhter, but said it would take place in Zhlobin, rather than Pinsk.
The abuse of official club websites was one of the allegations made during the last known 'ghost‑game’ incident, almost six months to the day before the Slutsk‑Shakhter affair. That was the now-infamous non-encounter between the Portuguese and Spanish lower‑league sides Freamunde and Ponferradina. The difference on that occasion was that an investigation found a match had been played, just not between the two teams advertised.
The anomaly may have remained unnoticed but for a betting-monitoring agency which raised the alarm and also alleged that a fake report appeared on the website of Freamunde, who denied any involvement.
The data scout at that game, who worked for RunningBall – which is owned by the UK firm Perform – was cleared of any wrongdoing by his employers.
Spanish and Portuguese authorities have yet to reveal the findings of their own investigations into the matter.
There has also been no announced outcome to a probe in to the first documented ghost game, between Maldives Under-21s and Turkmenistan Under-21s in January 2012.
With a phantom match in Armenia between Ulisses Yerevan and Gandzasar Kapan having taken place in January 2014, there have now been three such incidents in little over a year, pointing to a growing threat posed by the phenomenon.
The common theme in all these matches is that they were friendlies, making them far more vulnerable to such manipulation, and it raises questions over why bookmakers are accepting a market on them.
The former Fifa head of security Chris Eaton, now director of sport integrity for the International Centre of Sport Security, told Inside Sport that match-fixers turning to ghost games coincided with the explosion in sports data gathering.
He said: “Criminals look for the vulnerabilities in new areas and they believe they’ve found a vulnerability in the sport-data model in its reliance on very poorly paid individuals who are there providing minute-by-minute or second-by-second data.
“You’re talking about a sport data scout at a match being paid €50 [£37] maximum – often even less. So, economically, they are already pretty easy targets if they are of a mind to take any inducement.”
Eaton said that it was impossible to estimate how much money there was to be made from such fraud, because most of betting took place in the often-illegal Asian markets. “You have a marriage of convenience between eastern European organised crime and south-east Asian organised crime,” he said.
Such is the profile of English football that those in charge of policing the game may feel the prospect of a ghost game here is remote.
However, Eaton said: “There are so many football matches played in the UK and they are not all well‑attended. No jurisdiction, no country is immune from the threat of ghost games.”
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