On Wednesday the Gardaí arrested ten men in Dublin, Limerick and Cork as part of their Operation Brookwood investigation into betting related match fixing in the League of Ireland. Two of those arrested are currently playing in the League of Ireland, and five are former players. All but one of the men had been released by 11 o’clock on Thursday morning.
The arrests follow previous investigations into alleged match fixing involving an FAI Cup game between Limerick FC and Sligo Rovers in 2018 – in which Limerick led 2 – 0 after 9 minutes only to lose 6 – 2, and with 4 players sent off; a league game between Limerick and Shelbourne in April 2018; the suspension of two Athlone Town players over allegations of match fixing in 2017; an investigation into a match between Cork City and Bray Wanderers in 2017; another into a Bray Wanderers v Waterford friendly in September 2017, along with other suspicions regarding matches.
However, reports indicate that Operation Brookwood centred on games that took place in 2019 and that a number of players and officials had been questioned. This suggests that the current investigation is by no means about a few isolated incidents in the past.
The two Athlone players Igor Labuts and Dragos Sfrifan brought a High Court case following their suspension over claims of “irregular betting patterns” around a game between Athlone and Longford Town in April 2017. While Labuts, who was the goalkeeper in the match that led to his suspension, won an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the CAS agreed with the initial finding that the match had indeed been “manipulated.”
The reaction to the Athlone case was interesting. Some trumpeted Labuts’ exoneration as evidence that the whole thing had been “blown out of proportion.” Richie Sadlier, the former CEO of St. Patrick’s Athletic, criticised the manner in which the two had been treated, but there were some mind-boggling snippets of information in his Irish Times piece of September 9, 2017. One example was that the FAI had sold exclusive League of Ireland streaming rights to a company called TrackChamp – partly owned by the betting company Bwin.
TrackChamp is pretty low quality in terms of production values, but it is a key element in facilitating betting on events taking place anywhere in the world, particularly events which are of no interest even to people living across the road.
As an example of that disjunct between the games themselves and the gamblers and potential match fixers, Sadlier also referred to a UEFA estimate that the average betting market for an FAI First Division game was €650,000. As anyone who bets will know, that is a staggering figure for such a lowly event.. As I write , the current exchange market for Thursday’s English Premier League match between Chelsea and Leicester is around a third of that.
That places the FAI games in the same category as leagues in parts of the former Soviet Union which a decade or more ago had a similar imbalance between actual sporting interest in the match itself – crowds of 3 or 400 are common in the First Division – and the high volume of betting.
At one time if you knew by the betting patterns which match in a league ending with ‘stan’ or ‘ijan’ or ‘man’ was “in play” you could confidently pile on some unlikely correct score or number of red cards at whatever price was available, confident that you would be collecting.
Of late, it would seem that there are lads at laptops in all sorts of places around the globe who wouldn’t be able to distinguish between Shelbourne and Srebrenica but who are avid followers of the League of Ireland.
It should also be pointed too out that very little of the betting action on League of Ireland goes through the Irish or indeed English books. Paddy Power said that there were hardly any bets laid on the Bray/Waterford game. Indeed, as serious punters know you would be lucky to get on any Irish event if you were trying to place serious money.
Which undermines the anti-gambling lobby’s demand that the legitimate bookmakers and bettors be subject to sanctions because of the activities of sometimes black market operators and, in the case of match fixing, criminal gangs.
Finally, from a broader perspective, it would be perhaps prudent of the GAA and the IRFU to consider whether it ought to be offering any of its grounds to enable the FAI to bid to “host” the 2028 UEFA European soccer championships.