The Women’s World Cup is growing in every respect.
The field for the latest edition of soccer’s quadrennial event is now 24 teams, news media coverage and viewership have mushroomed and sponsors are beating a path to be associated with the event.
It has also piqued the interest of the world’s bettors.
Games at the tournament are drawing millions of dollars worth of bets, another sign of the World Cup’s growing popularity but also one of future risks to the women’s game, where match-fixers long active in professional men’s soccer are beginning to cast their gaze toward their female counterparts. Last year, for instance, a group of individuals was accused of trying to fix matches in Spain’s first division, and the Belgian soccer authorities announced three players from the under-16 girls national team program had been approached to fix a game in return for $50,000 each. That attempt, as well as others approaches, failed.
But FIFA is taking no chances in France this summer. Soccer’s governing body says its program to counter attempts to manipulate matches in the tournament are its most extensive to date for the event.
“It’s the first time we have been able to gather so many stakeholders around the table,” Vincent Ven, FIFA’s head of integrity, said in a telephone interview. FIFA is working with Interpol, the French police, national financial crime prosecutors and France’s betting regulator. The event even has drawn the F.B.I. to France. Officials from the bureau are scheduled to meet with counterparts from France, Belgium and the Netherlands on Friday to hear about strategies adopted in Europe to tackle match manipulation, a potential threat amid the growth of the legalized the sports betting market in the United States.
FIFA, which contracts the services of Sportradar, a betting data provider that monitors suspicious betting patterns, also has set up a specific monitoring hub in Paris for the duration of the tournament.
As the tournament enters the final set of group stage games on Monday, officials are likely to be on the highest alert. With some teams already eliminated from advancing to the knockout rounds, the risk factors rise. All of those have been factored in by a team that has been modeling the tournament for months, FIFA said.
Ven, who has been with FIFA for two years, said his team’s risk assessments included background checks on players and officials and “then we identified some matches which would have more of a risk.”
Those included matches likely to generate lopsided results, or those that included a team that already had been eliminated.
Estimates for the size of the gambling market for women’s soccer are hard to find, but just one market — for Saturday’s group game between Cameroon and the Netherlands — generated more than $1 million in wagers on a single British sports betting website.
The more that wagering grows, the more appealing it could become to fixers.
While the World Cup raises the profile of women’s soccer players, it is likely to do little to address the chronic lack of financial support those athletes face in many countries. That, too, could make them an appealing target for match fixers, who typically have targeted players on lower-tier men’s leagues or teams, rather than those in the game’s most high-profile leagues, where players draw multimillion-dollar salaries.
Venn said that while there are no indications the women’s game has been targeted in a meaningful way, working conditions broadly for players made it more “vulnerable” than “Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.”
In France, where the gambling industry is heavily regulated, there have been hardly any examples of attempts to manipulate sporting events involving women’s sports. Arjel, the body responsible for the online gambling industry, received only one alert last year related to a female athlete. That came after the woman, a table tennis player, blew the whistle herself after being approached by fixers.
Charles Coppolani, Arjel’s president, said he believed female soccer players have a larger incentive, one driven by a passion to promote their sport and silence doubters, that meant they were less likely to agree to fix games.
“Of course there’s always an individual, but the general idea is they want to prove something,” Coppolani said.
But the scale of the World Cup, not to mention the potential for embarrassment, has meant nothing is being taken for granted.
Last month, representatives of the agencies responsible for protecting the game gathered in Paris to prep their responses to four potential match-fixing scenarios, including responses to a sudden change in odds, or what actions to take if there were rumors surrounding a match official.
Each team also has been requested to assign one official to act as a liaison with FIFA on integrity matters, to serve as a point of contact should there be an alert. The players also have been briefed. The United States women’s team, for instance, received a 30-minute presentation before the tournament that mirrored one provided to senior staff members by FIFA.
The information consisted of guidance about possible punishments (typically a life ban) and the ways to spot an approach, but it also included a warning: “If you accept just once, maybe no one will know, but then you end up in a vicious circle.”
Said Venn: “What can happen to you, your family — you enter a very dark zone.”
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