BEIRUT: In 2004, FC Paderborn, team in the Bundesliga second division, came back from two goals down to win against Hamburger SV in the German cup knockout competition.
By the final whistle, Paderborn had reversed the score of the match, which ended 4-2, after being awarded two penalties by referee Robert Hoyzer, who also sent off one of Hamburger’s players.
Later investigations revealed that Hoyzer had taken money from Croatian gambling syndicates to fix the match, and he was sentenced in 2005 to two years and five months in jail. Hoyzer’s cooperation in investigations led to the indictment of several other suspects involved in match fixing in Germany.
Hoyzer’s case isn’t an isolated one in the recent history of football. The list of match fixing goes on to include players and club officials in addition to referees. In 2006, Italian Serie A Champions Juventus were stripped of their title and relegated to Serie B after top club officials were found guilty of influencing the appointment of match referees.
Match fixing has plagued – to various degrees – every sports industry since its inception. However, a growing betting industry, estimated to be somewhere between $500 billion and $1 trillion annually, that includes both legal and illegal markets is increasingly casting doubts over the integrity of games.
Increased ease of access to betting markets since online sports gambling ballooned nearly a decade ago in line with the growth of the Internet and mobile technology is facilitating match fixing in low-profile games around the globe and Lebanon is no exception, experts told The Daily Star.
Imad Nahas, a lawyer who holds a doctorate in gaming contracts and betting from French law school Paris II Panthéon-Assas said some strong indications pointed to a series of manipulations in the results of several low-tier leagues across a number of different sports.
“Several recent results in low-tier leagues including basketball and volleyball among other sports have made no sense to club owners and officials, who are inclined to believe that some players are manipulating the outcome of games,”said Nahas, who is also the secretary-general of the Lebanese Fencing Federation.
“Of course, surprises happen in sports,” Nahas adds, “but the frequency of bizarre incidents and illogical outcomes raises a red flag.”
Nahas said officials of different Lebanese sports federations had discussed the possibility of investigating players for match fixing but no concrete steps had been taken.
Results manipulation isn’t new to Lebanese sports. In February 2013, an investigation commissioned by the Lebanese Football Federation implicated 24 players along with two club officials in a number of match-fixing scenarios.
The players were accused of deliberately affecting the outcome of matches involving the national team as well as the Asian club competition AFC Cup in exchange for cash payments that ranged from $8,000 to $12,000. According to several testimonies, the implicated Lebanese players allegedly collected cash payments from match fixers during meetings at a number of hotels in Beirut.
“Today, players can task someone who is watching the game in the stadium or sitting in front of a TV at home to make online bets on their behalf while they play a role to ensure that the outcome of the bet goes in their favor,” Nahas said.
Online betting on sports events is popular among many Lebanese, who wager on international events as well as domestic league games with bookmakers based in countries such as the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica and the United Kingdom, among many others.
In many instances, the player doesn’t need to affect the final outcome of a game to make a profit, Nahas said.
“In football games, for example, players can bet on markets such as being awarded yellow cards or a basketball team failing to cover the spread set by a bookmaker while still winning the game.”
While regulated bookmakers in Europe have a reputation for detecting suspicious betting pattern, particularly if the bet is for instance made on a specific player to be carded, Nahas said players involved in match fixing could still avoid being caught by minimizing their stake and spreading the wager over several bookmakers.
“Regardless of whether it affects the outcome of a game or not, it still deals a blow to the integrity of the game,” he said.
State-run Ogero and Internet service providers in Lebanon have blocked access to a number of online bookmakers and poker websites over the past year at the request of the judiciary.
A Lebanese law ratified in 1995 grants Casino du Liban a monopoly on nearly all kinds of gambling within Lebanon for 30 years. However, the law doesn’t specifically touch on sports betting or any form of online gambling.
“In the absence of a law that regulates online gambling, the judiciary based its decision on the interpretation of the 1995 law that confines nearly all sorts of gambling to Casino du Liban,” Nahas said.
According to the law, the Lebanese government takes a flat share of 30 percent of CDL’s income during the first 10 years of the contract, 40 percent afterward and 50 percent during the last 10 years.
In 2011, CDL generated around $112 million for the government, which also owns a stake in the casino through Intra Investment that is 38 percent owned by Lebanon’s Central Bank.
The blocking of online poker and gambling websites reportedly followed several complaints by CDL, which offers its customers the most popular variation of poker known as Texas Hold’em but no sports betting.
The number of online poker players in Lebanon has increased sharply over the past few years as Texas Hold’em gains more media exposure.
Blocking Internet access to poker or sports betting websites would put off some gamblers, but the efficiency of such measures is limited since they can be easily circumvented by the use of virtual private networks, according to technology experts.
A security source conceded it would be impossible to completely deny access to such platforms but told The Daily Star that the Internal Security Forces’ Cybercrime Unit was taking the necessary measures to block gambling websites as ordered by the judiciary.
The source added that the Cybercrime Unit could also investigate the involvement of Lebanese sports players in match fixing if ordered by the state prosecutor.
However, for the state prosecutor to order such an inquiry, the concerned sport federation should provide him with some kind of evidence over match fixing.
While efforts to crack down on match fixing in Lebanon still lag behind other countries, Nahas argued that the Lebanese government ought to regulate online sports betting instead of outright banning it.
“Since it is almost impossible to crack down on illegal online gambling, comprehensive reforms should be introduced and a regulatory body should be created to supervise the sector, which could generate millions of dollars in tax revenues,” Nahas said.
Nahas said the government should grant licenses for a limited number of online bookmakers to offer their services in Lebanon provided that their servers were based in the country, such as is the case in France, for example.
A share of the tax revenues, Nahas added, could be used to better fund Lebanese sports federations and boost the wages of players.
“A player who earns around a $100 to $500 will be tempted to manipulate the outcome of a game for a small bribe. However, it would be much harder to corrupt a professional player who is making a decent living,” Nahas said.