Yet another reminder – is handball really prepared?

During the last several years, there have been several indications about the increasing prevalence of match fixing in European soccer, and UEFA has made statements about its efforts to be on top of the situation. In the Asian continent, several countries have had to close down their soccer leagues and clean up the mess created by the effects of illegal gambling. With increasing frequency, we hear about suspicions and investigations of tennis matches in ATP tournaments. Again, gambling is the root cause.

A couple of days ago, UEFA indicated openly to the media that the number of matches under investigation had skyrocketed, and that there is now an aggregate of more than 40 matches being scrutinized. UEFA collaborates with the European Sports Security Association (ESSA), an organization founded by major betting companies that maintains an ‘early warning system’ to detect game manipulation, and UEFA is now also working with Interpol and the police in several individual countries. It appears that a number of countries in Eastern Europe are particularly affected. But the impression is that the operators of the illegal gambling entities remain one step ahead!

In UEFA competitions, the focus has been especially on the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and the Europa League. Here several participating teams are quite well aware that they are really without any hope of advancing very far in the competition. So as they are going to lose anyway, they can as well make a lot of money off it. This is where gambling on one’s own matches and then manipulating the results fit in. There are many ways of making money, some of which are relatively obscure and do not draw so much attention. In addition to the final results, one can bet on half-time results, the number of goals scored and several other aspects. Moreover, the shenanigans are helped by the fact that the matches involved are in the early rounds and between teams that are not so much in the public eye.

Clearly, the EHF has in its numerous competitions the direct equivalent of this kind of matches. Many of them are played in locations and circumstances where the supervision is poor and the attention of the media is limited, and it is also clear that betting on handball is becoming increasingly common in Europe. The EHF has made some visible efforts to draw more attention and offer more training regarding match fixing, bribery and corruption in general. A recent pre-season symposium for all the top referees was an important step in this regard, and external expertise has also been contracted. However, these indications of taking the issue seriously are, until now, greatly undermined by the very feeble handling of those cases of manipulation that have already been discovered. As has been noted by John Ryan and myself, the reluctance to take serious action against the individuals involved, and the absurdly soft treatment of the clubs and federations involved, create an impression that the temptations to manipulate are worth the risk.

The IHF is more fortunate, in the sense that it does not directly arrange the type of matches just described, and IHF events are taking place more in the spotlight. However, we all know what can happen in continental events which are under the overall responsibility of the IHF and, moreover, the IOC is not exactly prepared to agree with a notion that IHF does not have any responsibility and culpability if things go wrong in EHF competitions. On the contrary, IHF is being held overall responsible for all such events and for those problems that damage the image of handball and sports in general. So the question is, do IHF and EHF take the issue seriously enough and do they dedicate enough resources to the prevention and eradication of this critical problem!?