Match-fixers accused of running 'ghost tournament' during COVID-19 crisis

With betting markets idling through the COVID-19 pandemic and punters desperate for something to bet on, match-fixers got creative last week in order to cash in.

Football stadium generic shot

Source: Getty Images

They created a ‘ghost tournament’ comprising of ‘ghost games’, supposedly played by obscure teams from the regional leagues of the Ukraine. 

At a normal game, a 'data scout' (or live data collector) will give a data provider a live stream of in-play information. This is then fed to betting companies in real time.  

In a ghost game, however, the match does not really exist - so the data scout provides entirely fictional in-play updates, or reports on a match played out between fake teams substituting for real ones.  

Either way, the result is entirely choreographed.

All the fixer has to do is find a gambling site offering the match and bet on the result they have scripted.  

"It's impossible that someone was playing, because we are under quarantine," Francesco Baranca, Ethics Chief with the Ukrainian Association of Football (UAF), said.

"In Ukraine, it's forbidden to play football now, because we are in lockdown. 

"All the team (the playing roster), they are not together. They don't have the chance to be together. Everyone is split (and) gone." 

The clubs supposedly featured in last week's three-day 'ghost tournament' of club friendlies have a very limited profile internationally.  

This obscurity was what made them - FC Berdyansk, Metropolskata Chereshnya, Tavriya Skif Rozdol and FC Lozovatka - such an appealing target for match-fixers.  

It is believed the fixers advertised the tournament through Facebook and may have set up a fake website for the competition or the regional league.

This may have been enough to convince a desperate sports data company that the games were in fact real.  

"The providers will see this and go, 'There is some match, we will go for it'," Baranca, who is also Secretary General of anti-match fixing group Federbet said.

"Or they took 22 players and say, 'Act like you are Berdyansk or act like you are Tavriya', and start to play.  

"Or nothing existed, and the scouts of the provider invented everything." 

He said a similar fraud, involving Russian teams, was also run at the same time. All up, gamblers were defrauded on around a dozen matches.  

A source within the betting industry said the matches were targeted at the Asian betting market, whose looser regulations make them popular with match-fixers.   

Baranca attacked two sports data companies for allowing these games' data to be sold to bookmakers.  

"(That this happened) without any sort of (independent) check is unbelievable," he said. 

One of those data providers, Bet Genius said the games had taken place, but with ring-in players.   

"Our standard match security protocol requires our statisticians to verify the authenticity of fixtures through audio and visual methods so we can confirm that the advertised games did in fact take place," the company said in a statement. 

"However, we now understand that these games were not played in an official capacity and were conducted in a fraudulent manner and we welcome the opportunity to support the Ukrainian FA and local law enforcement in their investigation of these matches." 

It did not provide a screenshot showing any of the matches in action. Nor did it immediately respond to questions about how it agreed to run data on a match taking place in a country in lockdown, or what compensation would be provided to defrauded gamblers. 

The other bookmaker Baranca has accused of providing data from these matches has denied doing so, and SBS The World Game has not seen evidence to suggest it did. 

Baranca said police were contacted earlier this week and an investigation is now underway. 

This is not the first time 'ghost games' have been pulled off. But it’s probably the most brazen example.

Typically, 'ghost games' feature obscure teams that will stay well out of the public eye.

Here, a huge chunk of the betting world was watching, because there was simply little else on.  

Given the lack of other matches available to bet on at the moment, the liquidity in these games' betting markets was believed to be huge. This therefore amplified the profitability of the scam.  

"It's insane to offer games (with teams like these) in Asia," Baranca said.

"It will be very easy (to see) that there is corruption."

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4 min read
Published 2 April 2020 at 7:17pm
By J Kerr