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Finnish footballers fight fixing with phone app

Two years ago, Finnish football was plunged into turmoil as several criminal trials unveiled a string of match-fixing revelations. Footballers in Finland are now fighting the scourge via the Finnish product of the moment: the mobile app.

Image: Yle

When Wilson Raj Perumal was arrested in Helsinki, he began spilling the beans on a sophisticated and large-scale match-fixing network. Nine Zambians and two Georgians at Rovaniemen PalloSeura (RoPS) and AC Oulu were convicted for participating in fixes, while officials at two other clubs were prosecuted for accepting fixers' money. 

Perumal was handed a two year prison sentence, and on his release he was passed over to Hungarian authorities who continued to investigate his tips. The European policing body Europol announced (siirryt toiseen palveluun) earlier this year that it suspects 425 people of trying to fix 380 matches--and that they believe those cases to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Little wonder, then, that the Finnish players' union (JPY) is fighting to stamp out fixing in Finland. Even from this part of the world, where football is not the most popular spectator sport to begin with, Uefa President Michel Platini's belief (siirryt toiseen palveluun) that match-fixing is the 'biggest threat' to football looks like a prescient observation.

Don't Fix it

With its somewhat awkward name, the Fifpro-sponsored 'Don't Fix It' seminar is a major plank in union's efforts to educate its members. The event gathered nearly 80 footballers from the top three divisions on a ferry heading to Sweden last week to learn about the risk of being targeted by organised criminals and how to report suspicions anonymously.

Lapland side RoPS were the centre of a match-fising scandal in 2011. Image: YLE

That anonymity is crucial, according to JPY's mobile app trainer Tero Koskela. As Koskela puts it, informing on mafia organisations is not something to be taken lightly.

"I don't even want to know where the information goes, as that would put me at risk," the former Vaasan PalloSeura (VPS) midfielder told Yle News, before demonstrating the web-based form that players can use to log in and report suspicious approaches.

That’s if they are able to spot suspicious activities: several players at the seminar expressed the view that it was extremely difficult to spot a fix, even when you were playing in the same match. One asked about 'motivation money', which clubs sometimes offer other teams to ensure a good performance against rival clubs.

The FA representative responded that new rules will tighten restrictions on such payments form the 2015 season. Finland's official response to fixing has been lauded by international observers, but it is clear that they are grappling with issues that have not been discussed much before.

A rational choice, not a cultural preference

So far, no Finns have been found to have fixed a match. The recent scandals involved Zambians and Georgians on the field and a Singaporean bagman, the Allianssi case in 2005 concerned a Chinese owner and players from the Benelux countries taking over a Finnish club shortly before a surprise 8-0 defeat. Finland was merely the setting for their misdeeds, a convenient location in which awareness was minimal and profits high. 

Crowds at Finnish games are small, with gates of just a couple of thousand people even at the highest level. Few of those would consider themselves hard-core fans, and media interest is often scarce. The risk of spectators or journalists raising suspicions is substantially lower than in many European countries.

Juhu Mikkila, a betting expert at the Finnish gambling monopoly Veikkaus, says that matches in Kakkonen, the third tier of the Finnish league pyramid, can be offered by hundreds of bookmakers all over the world, each one looking to make a profit on the game. 

Sports betting in Finland is a monopoly run by Veikkaus--unlike the unregulated market in much of the world. Image: Yle

This means that hundreds of thousands of euros can change hands on a match in Finland with only one or two hundred spectators and no television cameras present to record suspicious incidents for later scruitiny by football stakeholders. Salaries are miniscule, the risks of discovery small, and the potential rewards in the tens of thousands--and still no Finns have been caught fixing.

Unpaid salaries "key"

In this context it's easy to become complacent, to believe that sporting corruption comes from outsiders. That argument is comprehensively rejected by a global authority on fixing who recently published his second book on the subject.

In his book "How to Fix a Football Match", Declan Hill argues that corruption in sport is a product of rational choice, rather than cultural preferences. Hill argues that if certain conditions are present, people are more likely to choose to engage in corrupt activities regardless of whether they are Finnish, Zambian or Russian.

"Unpaid salaries are the key to matchfixing," says Hill, who has spent years investigating sporting corruption.

"Even at the World Cup there are teams of players who don't get paid for appearing there, and this is an open door to corruption at the highest levels of the sport."

Fortunately, Finnish authorities are not oblivious to the threat. In his seminar presentation, Jouko Ikonen of Finland's National Bureau of Investigation cited match-fixing concerns from way back in the 1960s. Ikonen views fixing in much the same way as Hill, as a balance of risks and incentives for the potential fixer.

That's just as well, as he is responsible for continually monitoring tips and suspicions that reach Finnish authorities from sources inside and outside the game. 

Shaky finances

Markus Juhola, JPY chair, says that his organisation is not solely focused on preventing outsiders from bringing corruption to Finland.

Veikkausliiga players earn half the average of male workers in Finland. Image: Lehtikuva

"We are not so naive as to believe that only foreign players can fix matches," says Juhola. The challenge for those working to stop fixers is huge. Finnish footballers in the top division, Veikkausliiga, earn around half the average of the rest of the male population. 

Club finances are often shaky, and it is not unusual for even the meagre wages contractually due to footballers to be late or not paid at all. That's one factor in the rational decision-making process, however. Players remain responsible for their actions. 

"Even if you earn only 10,000 a year, you still have to make the decision to accept an offer to fix," says Juhola. Juhola stresses that players need to know the warning signs, they should be wary of certain types of contacts, and they should notify the authorities when they suspect something untoward.

The players' union's new mobile app is an important tool to help footballers open up. The application allows players to report their suspicions anonymously, informs players of the likely approaches fixers take and feeds all the information back to the authorities. 

The aim is to remove the risk involved in confronting the mafia-like groups currently engaged in football corruption. Developed in Finland, the software is currently being tested in eight countries as well as Finland. The Ministry of Education, which helped fund the app, wants to see it distributed worldwide. 

If it does become the next big Finnish export, it could play a role in helping world football head off one of the biggest challenges it has ever faced.