The FIFA World Cup kicks off next week in Qatar at a time when international football is under attack from match-fixing syndicates.

Sportradar, a well-known international firm that monitors betting markets, says it has identified around 600 football matches in the first nine months of 2022 that could potentially be rigged. Experts say it’s unlikely that match-fixing syndicates will set their sights on an event as high-profile as the World Cup. But with more than $100 billion expected to be wagered on the World Cup worldwide, FIFA is taking precautions.

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For the first time, a task force of stakeholders including Sportradar, Interpol, the International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA) and the FBI will monitor betting markets and in-game betting for every World Cup match. The Task Force will look for fouls in everything from goals to yellow cards. According to FIFA, the FBI declined to comment on its role in the task force, but is involved in preparing the group for the 2026 World Cup in the United States.

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Sportradar, which has partnered with many US sports leagues to track betting markets, says it uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to monitor 30 billion datasets from more than 600 bookmakers worldwide. It also employs a team of 35 intelligence officers with experience in counterterrorism, financial fraud, military defense and law enforcement.

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“I know it sounds like James Bond, but it’s not,” Andreas Krannich, managing director of Sportradar’s integrity service, told Sportzshala. “This is solid intelligence work. We even infiltrated the match-fixing organization.”

In addition to monitoring betting markets, FIFA has held seminars to inform World Cup teams and referees about the threat of match-fixing and the protocols in place that include a whistle-blowing mechanism. However, even with all the precautions, it is extremely difficult to prevent match-fixing attempts. Education, the threat of discovery, and possible punishment are the sports leagues’ best weapons to dissuade matchmakers from participating in their games.

“In recent years, FIFA has adopted an effective approach to combating all forms of manipulation and/or illegal influence on football matches or competitions,” a FIFA spokesperson wrote in an email to Sportzshala. “In line with this approach, the FIFA judiciary is taking concrete action despite the fact that there has not been a single case of match manipulation in relation to the final competition of the FIFA World Cup.”

However, in 2016, five bookmakers and fairness monitors, including Sportradar, noted incorrect betting patterns during a World Cup qualifier between South Africa and Senegal. Irregular betting focused on more goals to be scored in a match and was subsequently linked to “deliberate misjudgments” by referee Joseph Lamptey of Ghana. Prosecutors argued that Lamptey awarded South Africa a penalty for a non-existent handball. After an investigation, FIFA banned Lamptey for life.

“The World Cup poses a relatively low risk in terms of match-fixing,” Matt Fowler, IBIA’s director of integrity, said during a phone interview with Sportzshala in October.

IBIA is made up of bookmaker operators from around the world who have the ability to drill down into account details at the customer level to detect any suspicious activity. For example, if multiple new accounts are opened around the same time and they start betting heavily on the same event, IBIA members may raise an alarm, which will trigger a deeper investigation.

While there will be more attention than ever at this year’s World Cup, there will also be more money at stake. FIFA estimates that the world stakes for the 2018 World Cup, which took place in Russia during the tournament’s traditional summer slot, were $155 billion. The amount of money wagered on this year’s World Cup could help match-fixing cover up any attempts to compromise events.

“This is the right question because of the liquidity,” Fowler said. “This will generate huge interest in betting around the world. When you have that kind of liquidity, being able to observe client-level activity goes a long way because obviously you can potentially have suspicious money in a very liquid market and the lines won’t necessarily move.

“I think the more traditional methods of simply tracking the movement of a line may be more difficult to detect. [irregularities] due to the huge market size [in the World Cup],” he added.

There is also some concern that match-fixing may target smaller in-game events, such as if a player receives a yellow card, known as “match-fixing”. Micro-event betting markets generally do not have enough liquidity to justify the risk for match-fixing aiming for the big score.

“Put yourself in the shoes of match-fixing,” said Krannich of Sportradar. “You need a return on investment and liquidity in the market. You must convince the players and the referee, and find a bookmaker who is willing to accept your money. Whether you want to bet $10,000 on the first faceoff or a yellow card, good luck. The bookmaker always protects itself by lowering the limits.

“It can never be ruled out,” Krannich said, “but from my point of view, the likelihood that organized crime groups will attack the World Cup here in Qatar, compared to other competitions, is relatively low.”

Overall, however, he remains concerned about the level of match-fixing he finds in all sports. He believes the lingering financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has left smaller sports organizations vulnerable, creating a “dream scenario” for match-fixing.

“For matchmakers, Christmas and Easter are on the same day and the party goes on,” Krannich said. “It sounds cynical, but unfortunately this is the situation and we see it everywhere.”