Johannesburg - The African Cup of Nations Group F match between Mali and Tunisia on Wednesday last week was supposed to give a glimpse into the title credentials of the two contenders.
Instead, after a cagey first half, the second part of the match turned farcical following some highly controversial decisions and timekeeping by Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe.
While Mali claimed a famous 1-0 win thanks to a second-half penalty by Ibrahima Kone, it was the referee who stole the headlines, for all the wrong reasons.
Sikazwe, who has been suspended before on allegations of corruption, gave two highly-controversial penalties, flashed an even more debatable red card, and blew the full-time whistle not once, but twice – once after 85 minutes and the second time with 11 seconds of normal time still left to play.
While Tunisia officials lodged an appeal with the Confederation of African Football (CAF) after the final whistle, their protest was immediately thrown out by the African football body, who have claimed that the referee may have been suffering from heatstroke and dehydration.
Despite CAF’s stance, many football fans from around the world believe corruption could have been at play during the clash between the two African giants, particularly due to the referee’s checkered past.
So could there have been an element of match-fixing? Or was it a simple case of the referee being affected by the heat?
It’s an incident that surely would have been looked at closely by global sports technology company Sportradar, who have once again been appointed to monitor the integrity of the prestigious African tournament, which has been held in Cameroon this year.
With the Africa Cup of Nations tournament coming under greater scrutiny than ever before, the organisers have put in place measures to mitigate the threat of match-fixing and betting-related corruption during the four-week competition.
CAF partnered with Sportradar Integrity Services – a global supplier of sport integrity solutions and partner to over 100 sports federations and leagues – who deployed its bet-monitoring service, the Universal Fraud Detection System (UFDS), to identify any suspicious betting activity.
With the tournament a long way in already, we asked Andreas Krannich, managing director of Sportradar Integrity Services, whether they had picked up on any suspicious activity so far in the tournament.
“We’d never say publicly if we had found any suspicious activity, as this would be reported to the competition organisers in the first instance and then would have to be investigated further,” Krannich told the Saturday Star this week.
“It wouldn’t be fair to say anything if it was later confirmed that nothing untoward had taken place, so we keep these matters private initially.”
Sportradar will be providing real-time bet monitoring of the tournament via their UFDS, as they have done for previous editions of the tournament.
“Our global team of integrity experts will scrutinise all betting activity from the tournament for any abnormalities, to help ensure that if anything potentially suspicious develops in the betting markets it will be reported to the relevant authorities immediately.
“We are also providing CAF with enhanced integrity support, and conducted an in-depth risk assessment prior to the tournament.”
Sportrader employees aren’t physically in Cameroon at Afcon to conduct their work, instead, their work will be done remotely through technology, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to process market activity across more than 600 bookmakers.
“This will be mapped against 20 years’ worth of historical data – we’re the only integrity provider to have this at our fingertips. The system we have in place provides our integrity analysts with insights and the ability to focus on any suspicious elements.”
Their state-of-the-art UFDS is underpinned by sophisticated machine-learning algorithms and a constantly maintained database of betting data, collected in real-time from the over 600 global betting operators.
“Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics, the UFDS tracks the global betting markets and identifies suspicious betting activity worldwide as it happens. This quantitative analysis driven by the technical alerting system is paired with a qualitative examination by Sportradar’s team of over 100 integrity experts.
“When abnormal betting activities are flagged by the UFDS, our team analyse the betting patterns for the specific event in detail. Should the analysis confirm that there is any suspicious betting activity or suspected match-fixing, Sportradar will report to the relevant sporting body.”
Asked whether Sportradar were anticipating any integrity issued during this year's Afcon, Krannich added that just like all major tournaments, Afcon has some element of risk attached to it.
“CAF has been proactive in dealing with potential threats, through measures such as the risk assessment Sportradar supported with. For high profile tournaments like these, the risk factors are similar to those in lesser competitions. Are there any players/coaches/referees who are struggling financially?
“Whether that is due to an issue with payment of salaries or a personal financial issue such as debt, this makes them more vulnerable to match-fixing approaches, and the criminals will do their research to find out if there are any weak spots they can target.
“We have also seen a rise in digital approaches from match-fixers in recent times, often through social media platforms, as they try to engage sporting participants in betting fraud.
“The avenue to making contact with a vulnerable individual who may be susceptible to an illicit approach is easier than ever before. Certain sports will always be more targeted by match-fixers due to their betting popularity – football is one – so the Afcon has some element of risk attached to it.”
Krannich said Sportradar helped solve a major match-fixing case involving a Ghana referee during a Fifa World Cup Qualifier between South Africa and Senegal in 2016.
“In recent memory, there was the major match-fixing case involving Ghanaian referee Joseph Lamptey, where the Fifa World Cup Qualifier South Africa versus Senegal was manipulated by him through his on-field actions.
“In March 2017, based on the evidence presented by Sportradar, Lamptey was banned for life by Fifa for match manipulation, and this decision was later upheld at CAS.
“This shows how even the highest-profile football matches can fall victim to match manipulation. Although such cases are rarer at the top of the game compared to further down the football ladder, the risk is always there and has to be taken very seriously in order to help keep these major sporting showcases clean of corruption.”
Krannich added that background checks had also been done with all players, coaches, and referees ahead of Afcon kicking off two weeks ago.
“Sportradar Intelligence and Investigation Services conducts background checks on relevant players, coaches, and referees. This includes checking for historic involvement in teams or matches where match-fixing activity is believed to have taken place.
“Additional checks are conducted into the individual’s links to gambling or known match-fixing syndicate members. Our findings were shared with CAF in this regard, and this is standard practice when conducting a risk assessment of a major tournament such as this, as we do for many major sporting events across the world.”
While Krannich was not able to reveal if there has been any suspicious activity during this year's Afcon, he has indicated that match-fixing in football in Africa has become rife in recent years.
“There have been several well-documented integrity issues within African football in recent years, including match-fixing investigations in Ghanaian and Tunisian football, as well as sanctions involving Kenyan and Ugandan football players being banned for match-fixing offences,” said Krannich.
“African football will continue to face challenges in the years ahead, much as the rest of global football, particularly in leagues and competitions where there are financial issues affecting the players.
“When there are weak spots in terms of the financial stability of the competition or the clubs’ competition in them, this leaves matches vulnerable to match-fixing, as those looking to corrupt the result for betting reasons are aware that some people may be more open to lending an ear to their propositions.
“Financial instability at a club/competition level can be driven by issues with sponsorships, for instance, or at an athlete level with delayed salaries or unfulfilled salary promises.”
Across all African sports, 49 suspicious matches were detected in nine different countries during 2021, says Krannich.
“This reflects the pattern we see in other continents, where match-fixing is rarely contained in one or two countries in the region. The real number of suspicious cases is likely even higher, as not all African sport is monitored in the UFDS at present, and we can only detect and report activity if asked to do so by the relevant sporting authority.
“This is where the UFDS – offered free of charge – can help to support African sport, by providing key visibility over the integrity of sporting competitions on the continent.”