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Serie B (and Maybe A) Match Fixing Scandal

2011 December 22
by Phil Miller

Nick Watanabe over at the International Journal of Sport Finance Blog alerts us to a match fixing scandal in the Italian soccer league, Serie B, which may involve fixing of matches in the top league, Serie A.

Former Atalanta captain Cristiano Doni and 16 other people have been arrested across Italy in an ongoing investigation into soccer match-fixing and illegal betting.

The inquiry is focused on several matches in Serie B over the past two seasons, with Atalanta involved in three matches. Three Serie A matches from last season are also under investigation: Brescia vs. Bari, Brescia vs. Lecce and Napoli vs. Sampdoria.

“This is not the end, but just a starting point,” Cremona prosecutor Roberto Di Martino said Monday. “Let’s hope it’s a starting point in cleaning up the beautiful game that is football. One of the suspects has admitted that these operations have been going on for over 10 years.

It’s not uncommon to hear about game-fixing and point-shaving scandals in American college sports, but in recent history, there have been no scandals involving fixing or shaving by professional players.   For example, here is one list of gambling scandals involving US sports.  Only one of the scandals happened in recent years, the NBA game-fixing scandal from 2007.  But this scandal did not involve fixing by players.  It involved game fixing by NBA referee Ted Donaghy, a scandal that was an isolated incident.   The remaining 4 include 3 college scandals and the infamous 1919 Black Sox scandal in which members of the Chicago White Sox intentionally lost the World Series that year.

Here is another take, a top 10 list, at ESPN’s Page 2.  This list is a more general list that includes not only fixing and gaming scandals, but also scandals where players or coaches were simply gambling.  For example, the list includes the Pete Rose scandal where Rose gambled on baseball games, including the Reds for whom he played and managed.  But to my knowledge, there is no evidence that Rose actually fixed a game or shaved runs.

The decision to fix/shave depends on the benefit the person will get and the cost.  The cost is a function of the probability that the person will be caught and the penalties if caught.  Ignoring such costs as lawyer fees, time spent in jail, and the penalties someone will “pay” for violating cultural norms and losing his reputation, if a person is caught fixing or shaving in sports, that person loses his job, for life.   Gambling in sports works to destroy the very integrity of the game, and thus fan willingness to pay.  So sports leagues do not mess around when gambling rears its head.  They act quickly and decisively.  So why in professional sports do we see no instances of point shaving or match-fixing by players in the modern day here in the States?

To that we can look to our friend, free agency.  Before the era of free agency, the four major professional sports leagues each had some version of the reserve clause which effectively eliminated competition between teams for players.  Without this competition, players would be compensated at a level below their marginal contribution to their teams.  With free agency, player compensation, on average, will be higher and closer to player marginal contribution.  So giving players the right to free agency, all else equal, should result in there being fewer incidences of fixing and shaving.  History suggests that this is, indeed, the case.

This is also why fixing and shaving have essentially been relegated to the supposedly amateur ranks.  These players are not compensated monetarily so, all else equal, they have less to lose than if they earned some sort of financial compensation.  Thankfully, though, fixing and shaving don’t happen very often even if they happen at a greater rate than in the pros.

So the question is, what is going on in Italian soccer?  Are these just isolated incidents involving just a few players?  The article says that this may have been going on for 10 years, so is there something more going on?  The article notes that one suspect says this has been going on for ten years.  Why would people risk their careers and their personal reputations by fixing matches in Italian soccer.?

3 Responses
  1. Chris A. permalink
    December 27, 2011

    This is not the first scandal involving match fixing in Italian football, and match fixing allegations and punishments are in the news every year from soccer around the world. I love the game, but the corruption appears to be everywhere. There is such a culture of mistrust and players and coaches aren’t shy from pointing to match fixing every time a decision fails to go there way.

    Just a few years ago, one of the most powerful clubs in the World, Italy’s Juventus, had to relinquish a title they had won during a season in which they were found guilty of match fixing, and they were relegated to Serie B. Of course, they made it back to the top flight the very next season and are again a perennial contender in Italy.

    In Portugal, the recent “Golden Whistle” scandal involved attempted bribery of referees involving two clubs from the city of Porto, FC Porto and Boavista. As is typical when it comes down to handing out “punishment,” the rich, influential clubs get a slap on the wrist while the nobodies get the real punishment. Portuguese powerhouse FC Porto were docked six points for being found guilty of fixing 2 matches (3 pts per win) but they won the league by such a wide margin that they still won the league after the points deduction; the club and/or president were also fined menial amounts. Underdog Boavista, on the other hand, who in 2001 were the first club outside of Portugal’s Big Three to win the league title in almost 50 years, were instantly relegated to the second tier of Portuguese football after being found guilty of attempting to fix 3 matches (if they were given a 9 point deduction, a 3 points per match penalty similar to the one handed to Porto, Boavista would have stayed in the top league as they had finished 11 points above relegation.) Porto is still the biggest, richest club in Portugal while Boavista is now languishing in the third tier of Portuguese football and has been on the verge of dissolution for three years. That’ll teach the geeks to stay away from the jocks.

  2. Phil permalink
    December 27, 2011

    That is really interesting. Even the hint of a gambling scandal sets US sports leagues into full attack mode.

  3. Chris A. permalink
    December 28, 2011

    In Joe Mcginniss’ excellent book Miracle of Castel di Sangro, the true story of Joe (an American) and his unlimited access to a small Italian club on the way up the Italian football pyramid, he mentions the unspoken agreements between clubs whereby the club with nothing to gain or lose will give minimal effort in a match against an opponent with everything to lose or gain. Later on, usually a year or two in the future, the club that won the match in question would lay down in their next match to repay the ‘debt.’

    There are also plenty of stories in World Cup tournaments where teams might unofficially agree to play for a draw in their final group stage match because that result gets both teams through to the next round, or where one team will throw a match for the sole purpose of harming a rival.

    I could go on…

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