SYDNEY: Fears of match-fixing will lurk in the background at the Asian Cup as the stain of corruption proves hard to shift despite efforts to clean up football.
While most attention will focus on the big matches in Australia, games between smaller teams will also be under scrutiny for potential manipulation by illicit betting rings.
Swiss-based Sportradar, which has a partnership with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), will monitor for unusual betting patterns once the tournament starts on Friday.
Smaller teams, where players are usually paid less, are considered more vulnerable to match-fixers who may offer them bribes to throw a match.
“Any time you have meaningless matches, pool games where the result means nothing, or teams where the players are poorly rewarded… there is a risk,” betting industry expert Scott Ferguson told Agence France-Presse.
Match-fixing, along with doping, is one of the biggest threats to the integrity of sport and is fuelled by a multi-billion dollar illegal betting industry.
A crackdown on several fronts has yielded results, with scandals uncovered in Australia and England and a leading suspect now detained for more than a year in Singapore.
But incidents persist, creating the damaging perception that any unusual results—especially in hotspot Asia—have been manipulated.
Last month, Vietnamese football officials raised concerns about their own national team after their AFF Suzuki Cup semifinals loss to Malaysia. No suspicious betting patterns were detected.
And in November, Saudi club Al Hilal cried foul over their AFC Champions League final defeat to Western Sydney Wanderers after a string of penalty appeals were waved away.
Ferguson, a former head of education at bookmakers Betfair who runs the Sport is Made for Betting website, said the risk of match-fixing at the Asian Cup was “fairly low”, given the event’s high profile and anti-corruption efforts in Australia.
But organizers will remain on their guard. In September, Sportradar said betting patterns showed a strong likelihood of fixed football matches at the Asian Games.
Elsewhere, Japan’s coach Javier Aguirre will appear in a Spanish court in February over accusations of match-fixing in 2011, when he was in charge at Zaragoza.
Major scandals have been uncovered in many countries in Asia, including China, where officials were jailed in a mass clean-up, and South Korea, where a player committed suicide following revelations of fixing in the K-League.
Monitoring betting is a key weapon in the fight against fixed matches, giving an instant indication of whether a shock result is legitimate or down to foul play.
“Shock results do actually happen, given a large enough sample size. It’s only in recent years we ponder if there was anything suspicious behind it,” Ferguson said.