Fears of criminal match-fixing gangs targeting British football this season are growing as the government’s latest Covid-19 measures include “pausing” plans for the return of crowds, which will have a devastating effect on the sport’s finances, according to investigators.

“The risk and threat of match-fixing is ever present, but the financial blow that the coronavirus has dealt to football with many teams relying on match-day income, which is non-existent and may remain so for the foreseeable future, has increased that risk,” says David Lampitt, managing director of sports partnerships at Sportradar, which tracks match-fixing activity worldwide.

“There is now potentially a greater temptation for criminal activity at clubs which are facing financial difficulties, where many players are getting reduced wages or, in some cases, not being paid at all.

“This increases the chances that players can become susceptible, and these individuals are poised to take advantage of the financial distress faced by players. In addition, the clubs themselves can become more susceptible to investment or takeover from criminal groups seeking to exploit them for match-fixing and other corrupt purposes.”

Lampitt, who is a former chief executive officer of Portsmouth FC, says fixing games is a multi-million pound industry for criminal groups and it goes on every day of the week although for many years it has gone under the radar.

Lampitt adds: “These criminal individuals know that match-fixing carries a lower risk of prosecution compared to drug smuggling and people trafficking, especially as fixed football matches are not always a focus for national and international law enforcement.”

Sportradar, the world’s leading sports data and content supplier, uses its Fraud Detection System (FDS) to track the betting on football across the globe, including in this country and in the burgeoning Asian markets.

“We estimate that in the UK alone, punters placed more than £18.3 billion in football bets during 2019 across both regulated and unregulated channels,” says Lampitt, “while global betting on UK football, flowing through regulated and unregulated markets, surpassed 90 billion euros £82.6 billion in that same period.

“Through our integrity expertise and technology, we track these betting markets, not just on UK football, but on the sport throughout the world, and if we see unusual betting patterns we report them to the relevant governing bodies and authorities, who can then take the appropriate action.

Lampitt sees an alignment between bookmarkers and sports in this important area: “Bookmakers, just like punters and football fans and the sports themselves, want integrity and credibility in the markets they offer and don’t want to see corrupt influences affecting the outcome of games.

“Through our contracts with FIFA, we monitor the top divisions of football in almost every football-playing nation around the world as well as international matches and major regional club competitions like UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League and their qualification rounds.”

UEFA’s ground-breaking disciplinary action against Albanian champions KS Skenderbeu, which was supported by Sportradar, shows that even this high level of competition can be a target for match-fixers.

And current data shows that Covid-19 has increased the percentage of matches logged as “likely to have been manipulated”.

Lampitt explains: “For instance, across the first eight months of this year, football saw a near 30 per cent reduction in suspicious matches.

“However, this needs to be qualified by the fact that there had been a near 50 per cent reduction in the number of football matches played compared to 2019 due to Covid-19.

“So actually, the relative risk of match-fixing increased through the first eight months of 2020 – and that trend is likely to continue.”

There isn’t a continent that has been unaffected by match-fixing, but across the past decade Europe and Asia have been the two areas most impacted by match-fixing.

Historically, the second and third tier domestic leagues are those that witness the highest number of suspicious matches, and this is because match-fixers can offer attractive bribes relative to second-tier player salaries, aided by the fact that highly liquid betting markets are still available for such matches, particularly in the Asian betting market.

Lampitt notes there has also been a recent trend towards targeting lower and regional leagues and even youth matches.

“We have seen a rise in match-fixing in domestic third-tier leagues and below, including youth leagues. A lack of integrity provisions at these levels of the game have likely led to this situation, and this is why Sportradar strongly believe in a proactive approach involving education and prevention to keep players away from these risks.”

Lampitt adds: “Sportradar helps crack down on these illegal activities. Our business is built on protecting the integrity and credibility of the sporting markets. It’s in our DNA to help protect against these threats to the sport.

“But match-fixing is difficult to police. You might have a match-fixer on one continent, a game being played on another continent and the betting taking place anywhere in the world.

“That’s tricky to pull together from an enforcement perspective.

“But more and more we are working closely with Interpol, Europol and other agencies to crack down on these gangs.”

Across global sport, Sportradar reported 661 sporting events as highly suspicious and likely to have been manipulated in 2019, with 576 (87 per cent) of these being football matches.

Lampitt says: “In regard to football, since 2015, the number of suspicious matches has been reasonably consistent year-on-year, fluctuating between 450 and 650 matches a year across this period.

“Other major sports have seen different trends, with suspicious matches in tennis dropping significantly since 2018, while suspicious matches in basketball have notably increased over the same period.”