Soccer Friendlies Linked to Match-Fixing, New Research Study Shows

Posted on: December 1, 2021, 07:50h. 

Last updated on: December 1, 2021, 09:25h.

New research led by Cyprus’ University of Nicosia Research Foundation seems to indicate that soccer “friendlies” are ripe targets for match-fixing. A three-year study found that the friendlies had more suspicious activity than other games.

European soccer
Members of Portugal’s national soccer team in their pre-final friendly against Israel at the EUFA Euro 2020. Soccer players in Europe might have been exposed to match-fixing at one or more friendly competition. (Image:

The study was funded by the European Commission’s Erasmus+ program. It explored friendlies by European soccer teams from 2016 to 2020, and determined that over 250 matches could have possibly been rigged.

A separate survey conducted as part of the research found that 26.5% of 700 players in Cyprus, Greece, and Malta acknowledged playing in a game that could have been fixed. Club officials were responsible for roughly 26.3% of the requests to throw a game, while players made around 15% of the requests.

Researchers also assessed that data from friendlies is sometimes sold to unregulated sports betting operators. These operators don’t participate in established reporting schemes, which may make the number of incidents higher than calculated.

The International Betting Integrity Association (IBIA), the CIES Football Observatory and the football players unions of Cyprus, Greece and Malta also participated in the research.

What are Soccer Friendlies?

Soccer friendlies are a bit what the name implies — friendly games. These matches are played by interleague or national teams, as well as games between countries that aren’t part of the regular competition schedule. These are considered warm-up games or, in some cases, exhibition games.

Only a very small percentage of the in-game action counts in the overall statistics. Goals scored, for example, in a FIFA-sanctioned game count. In an unsanctioned game, they don’t.

Friendlies Need More Oversight

The study found that there is a higher risk of match-fixing because of the lack of regulation and governance in the sport. It’s also because of the availability of smaller friendly games on betting markets all over the globe, especially in countries like Curacao or the Philippines.

The combination of a lack of regulation, oversight and information makes these matches easier to manipulate than competitive matches,” said Professor Nicos Kartakoullis, President of the Council of the University of Nicosia.

Kartakoullis added that ultimately these games need more governance.

“Friendly matches need to be considered just like competitive matches,” he said. “With the data for 4,000 friendly matches being offered for betting purposes around the world each year, it is also vital that the betting companies receiving that data are operating from well-regulated jurisdictions and report suspicious betting to protect the integrity of those events.”

Kartakoullis was also the lead researcher on the project.

How Big is The Problem, Really?

While the analysis of University of Nicosia Research Foundation research may seem alarming, in context, these results may not be as bad as they seem.

There are 1,000 professional soccer clubs, just in Europe, playing in 38 leagues. If each team played two friendlies a year, that equals a total of 2,000 games.

Over the course of the three-year study, the total number of friendlies, at two per year, would equal 6,000. If there were a total of 250 matches that had questionable activity, this would represent only about 4% of the total number of games.

It’s impossible to eliminate fraud and manipulation in any market. However, the 4% figure doesn’t indicate a widespread penetration of cheating.

There is enough evidence to support that match-fixing has been a problem in sports almost as long as sports have been around. Recent studies, though, have shown that manipulation of the outcome of games has been decreasing. Better data tools offered by companies such as Sportradar and the IBIA are part of that reason.