By Tony Attwood
Back in 2007 when Untold started I was exploring all sorts of avenues of interest that I thought this site could follow. One involved statistics. I’d watched a match at the Emirates and looked that evening at the stats that appeared on some web sites. Although I’d not made any notes at all during the game I just felt that the stats about corners, shots on target etc were not at all right.
The following match I took a notebook and did my own checking. Sure enough I got a different number from that reported. All the papers that covered the matter had one figure. I had a different one.
So who would you believe? Obviously the unbiased independent stats company. The one company that gave statistics to all the clubs. An Arsenal fan recording the statistics at an Arsenal match – bound to be biased.
But even though I tended to disbelieve my own figures I began to do a little sleuthing of my own, finding out what the companies who gathered statistics did and how they gathered all the data.
They were of course varied, and they did all sorts of things as well as telling us about the possession levels, number of shots on target and the like. They also reported on players and matches in all sorts of places I’d never heard of.
Then in June 2008 the Daily Mirror reported that Peter Crouch was signing for Arsenal, and I began to think – if I know that this story is completely made up, what about all these stories that I can’t check so readily?
In January 2009 The Times published a list of up and coming giants of the game and included at number 30 (and I quote exactly)…
“Masal Bugduv (Olimpia Balti)
“Moldova’s finest, the 16-year-old attacker has been strongly linked with a move to Arsenal, work permit permitting. And he’s been linked with plenty of other top clubs as well.”
After that more stories emerged. His transfer value went up. He was going to go to Zenit St Petersburg because Arsenal were being too slow and didn’t want to pay the full amount. He was already playing for his country.
But in the end it turned out that the player didn’t exist.
And then something else happened. The Times just removed all reference to the story from their web site. No apology, no update. Total wipe clean.
So I began to wonder further about what was true. And I began to realise the problem.
A lot of the “research” and “analysis” companies were, I realised, producing figures that were operating in a half-baked way without security. They used very low paid people to watch matches on TV and record the stats. Stories abounded about people nipping out for a drink part way through and then averaging up their statistics from the bit of the match they had seen. Some didn’t even make it to the match.
After that we had the tales of matches that were analysed (earning the employee of the statistical company a few pounds) and had bets placed on them (earning the match fixers some money in bets placed). But the games were not even played.
Since then phantom matches have spread – but the media has remained in sturdy denial, simply because they too use the services of the statistics companies that pay peanuts and get back make-believe.
But now the problem is getting so out of control that even the sturdily resistant British press is acknowledging that not all football matches happen. They are not admitting that their analyses might be wrong, but they are starting to tell us that the system is not quite as sturdy as it might seem.
For in the Belarusian Premier League a friendly between Slutsk and Shakhter Soligorsk was reported. To everyone’s surprise Slutsk won 2-1. To not very many people’s surprise the game didn’t actually happen, but was a phantom set up for the purposes of getting one over on the increasingly dopey gambling companies whose rule of thumb is “if it moves, accept the bet”.
It is good that some sections of the UK press have picked up on the story, and even better that some of the articles contain a reference to the fact that football gambling is a form on money laundering.
If you don’t live in England you might not know that in many towns our once thriving High Streets are now ghostlands consisting of fast food outlets, charity shops and gambling dens. The money launderers walk into one gambling shop and play the new high stakes roulette games, betting on black and red. They put in dirty money, at the end cash in clean money. I’ve even heard of them working in gangs of three with one betting on the home team to win, one on the away team to win, and in the third on a draw. The purpose of course is not to make a profit but to walk out with a modest loss but with clean money. The estimate is that getting on for £100 billion is laundered each year.
But the real big recognition is that at least one newspaper has now said the phantom games are not just created by gamblers but also by those supplying information to football data companies. Their aim is either to help the gamblers, nor to mislead the clients of a particular firm into chasing second rate or non-existent players, but simply to supplement a very low income.
For it is not only the results of these games that appear but also the reports of the matches, the statistics and the performances of players.
The problem that everyone has here is exactly the same issue as with referees. There is a huge disparity between what the people involved in the game are paid, and the amount of money churning through the football betting agencies. If a data agent is paid say €25 a session and someone says, “tell your bosses that you went to this game and hand over this report – and here is €2000” the temptation is enormous. The cost to the fixer is nothing compared to the money circulating. If the data agent runs away with the money, the loss is nothing. Quite often the fixing agent might pay a dozen data agents in the hope that a couple will come up with the report.
I still don’t know if my analyses of matches I tried to record in my notebook in 2008 were right and the data agency’s reports were wrong, or not. I’m not going to do the exercise again because I have other things to do.
But I do think we have here another very good reason for Arsenal buying StatDNA. The club has total control over the whole process now, thus reducing the chance of any interference from without. I can only hope they are paying their data agents a decent salary.
Of course I don’t mean that Arsenal would be as dumb as the Times in believing in a non-existent player, but they can at least avoid wasting a lot of time, in that regard. And perhaps more importantly, when they come to play overseas, they will know that the information they have on the home team is valid and that the home team is not reading Arsenal’s analyses.
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