Suspicions are percolating throughout the sport

Forget drug-taking - the biggest threat to modern sport is match-fixing. From snooker to football, the allegations keep coming. Can we really believe what we're watching any more? By Lawrence Donegan.

The shocking "revelation" was dropped, quite casually, into a review of The Fix, a book written by the investigative journalist Declan Hill chronicling his experiences with Asian gamblers who claimed to have fixed all kinds of football matches, from low-level Belgian league games to England's 1-0 victory over Ecuador at the last World Cup. The allegation was made by the respected French newspaper Liberation. It said that the greatest football match in recent memory - the 2005 Champions League Final in which Liverpool, 3-0 down at half-time to AC Milan, came back to win on penalties - was fixed.

Hill does not believe the claim and there was no evidence to back it up, just mention of a phone call from a trusted source on the Asian gambling market. Yet the levels of innuendo and speculation (not to mention all the official investigations) about match-fixing in professional sport are leading many fans to question whether any result, even at the highest level, might be too good - or bad - to be true.

Just before Christmas, a first-round UK Championship snooker match attracted so many online bets on a score of 9-3 - which indeed proved to be the final result - that bookmakers withdrew their odds days before the match was played and reported their suspicions to the snooker authorities. The two players involved, world number two Stephen Maguire and his fellow Scot Jamie Burnett, strongly denied any wrongdoing, and the official inquiry is ongoing.

The endemic suspicions plaguing cricket were exposed in horrifying fashion by the sudden but wholly innocent death of the Pakistan cricket coach, Bob Woolmer, during the 2007 World Cup. Conspiracy theox rists, cricket writers and the Jamaican police force all duly concluded that Woolmer must have been murdered to stop him exposing a match-fixing plot involving his own team. Certain Pakistani players still feel scarred by the unfounded rumours of their involvement in his death.

In tennis, meanwhile, years of allegations surrounding particular matches and players led Australian authorities to set up a special police taskforce to ensure the integrity of the first Grand Slam event of 2009, the Australian Open. According to Michael Franzese, a self-confessed former match-fixer and member of the New York mafia, it is individual "head-to-head" sports such as tennis and snooker (but not golf, which generally isn't played as a series of one-to-one contests) that offer the most desirable opportunities for today's illegal betting syndicates.

Franzese - whom Fortune magazine once ranked 18th in its list of "most wealthy and powerful mafia bosses" - maintains that tennis is especially vulnerable because of the sheer quantity of matches being played, and the fact that one player can have such an influence on the result. Indeed, in 2007, concerns about match-fixing in the sport grew so serious that Franzese was asked by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) to lecture its members - the professional players - about the dangers of socialising with gamblers.

"If I was back in `the life'," Franzese says, "there is no doubt I would try to corrupt tennis matches, because you are always looking for a situation where one person can make a major impact on a game.

"A gangster would have bookie contacts who would let him know if there was a professional athlete who was a big gambler. You would get him in deep and then go to the guy and ask, `How are you going to repay us? In cash right now, today? In which case I want my money now. Or will you do us this one favour?'"

According to Franzese, his lurid tales stirred unpleasant memories for members of the professional tennis-playing tour. Some approached him afterwards to tell him that they had been targeted by extortionists.

Coincidentally, a few weeks after Franzese's meeting at the ATP, the online gambling company Betfair voided all bets on a tennis match featuring the world's then number four-ranked player, Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, after it attracted GBP3.4m ($4.9m) in bets - 10 times more than normal for such a low-profile event. Davydenko and his opponent were both eventually cleared, while a wholesale review of gambling in tennis commissioned by the ATP concluded that tennis was neither "systematically or institutionally corrupt". Move along now, the governing body was saying, there's nothing happening here.

But it is not only individual sports such as tennis where tales of corruption are rife.

Recently, AC Milan's arch city rivals Internazionale, now managed by Jose Mourinho, were said to have been accused by the Italian Public Ministry of throwing matches at the end of last season. The headline in Il Giornale read: "Public Ministry: Inter threw away games to help facilitate gambling bets." Both the club and Milan's public prosecutor's office immediately denied the allegations, which are surely groundless, but you could not blame Italian football fans for doubting the integrity of their league. After all, a criminal trial of 24 referees, club directors and football association officials said to be involved in the infamous match-fixing scandal of 2006 had begun only the previous week.

Suspicions are percolating throughout the sport. When Declan Hill's investigation into match-fixing was reviewed in Liberation, he was amazed to read their reaction. As he recorded in his blog: "In essence, the (Liberation) writer says, `Dr Hill has written a good book but the poor fellow, he is so naive. He thinks the (Milan-Liverpool match) was an example of the greatness of football and the human spirit. We received a phone call from a source on the Asian gambling market who told us the match was fixed . . .'"

"I wouldn't want to comment on that specific allegation," Hill responds now, "beyond saying that I don't believe it - but that is not my main concern. My main concern is that I am beginning to hear this kind of thing all the time about football; this speculation about individual matches. It is the beginning of disbelief about the beautiful game."

Fixing a team game with 11 players on each side is never going to be easy. The simplest and most effective way might be to nobble the referee, and a litany of match officials have been targeted over the years. In 2005, the leading German referee Robert Hoyzer was sentenced to two years and five months in prison after admitting fixing (or trying to fix) nine matches. One German cup game whose result he influenced is remembered for the rash sending-off of a player in the first half, and the awarding of two dubious penalties. Hoyzer later admitted that, in return for fixing the result of that game, he received around GBP 46,000 ($ 66,000) and a flat-screen television.

After referees, goalkeepers are the next most vulnerable players for the attention of match-fixers. Unlike any outfield player, one "slip" can cost their team a goal, and two Premiership keepers, Bruce Grobbelaar of Liverpool and Hans Segers of Wimbledon, were famously accused of involvement in a match-fixing plot in 1994. Both were cleared by a court case, then later found guilty of breaching betting regulations by the Football Association.

Hill's investigations into match-fixing have been studiously ignored by the football authorities, perhaps in the hope that the fuss will go away. "At the end of last year, Fifa held a conference on match-fixing and corruption, and the invited speaker was (Fifa executive committee member) Franz Beckenbauer," he says. "No offence to Beckenbauer, who was a wonderful player, but having him speak about match-fixing is like having me speak about German defensive formations."

If world football's governing body ever did get around to inviting Hill to speak at one of its conferences, they would hear a story about gambling in the far east and the destructive influence it has had on the credibility of football. He cites an incident during a Chinese league match in 2004, when the manager of Beijing Hyundai led his players off the pitch after the referee awarded a dubious penalty to the opposition, and declared the team would be withdrawing from the league because it was rife with "fake matches, illegal betting on games and other ugly phenomena". The accuracy of these allegations hardly mattered; what mattered most was that the league lost any credibility. And Hill fears that European football leagues could suffer a similar fate.

"People within the game are quite happy to talk about globalisation, about how popular our game has become in places like Malaysia and x China, but they fail to acknowledge that globalisation is a two-way process," he says. "Football fans in those countries are transferring their allegiances to our game, but so are the gamblers and the fixers. Fifa's argument is that the match-fixers never succeed, that they are the unluckiest tourists in the world. Does anyone really believe that?"

Some do, but even those ingenus who retain their faith in the purity of the game have been tested in recent times, as leagues across Europe have found themselves mired in match-fixing scandals. In Poland, more than 100 people have been arrested over the last two years in connection with match-fixing claims. In the Czech Republic, referees, players and officials have all been arrested by police investigating match-fixing. In 2006, Italy endured a scandal so serious that it was given a name, "Calciopoli", after which Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio were all heavily punished for influencing the appointment of "favourable" referees.

English football has come under scrutiny, too. Last October, the English Football Association launched an investigation into suspicious betting patterns surrounding a recent Championship match between Norwich City and Derby County (both clubs were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing). And in December, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo published a taped conversation said to be between a player and a club official discussing their efforts to fix a match in La Liga, the country's premier football division.

"The attitude of the Spanish authorities to this has been typical," says an incredulous Hill. "They have said they think it is terrible and that someone should crack down on it. The football authorities themselves should be cracking down on it. Instead, they are taking the approach that if they ignore the problem or deny it, then the general public won't notice."

But what actually is being done - by the football authorities, or by anyone? Until recently, denial has appeared to be the preferred approach of Uefa, the governing body of European football. While many matches have been investigated - Uefa put the figure at 15 games for the 2006/07 season - its spokesman, William Gaillard, says that as far as the organisation is concerned, over the last five years only one, possibly two, matches under its jurisdiction may have been fixed; one was a 2004 Uefa Cup match bex tween the Georgian club Dynamo Tbilisi and Panionios of Greece, the other a 2007 Intertoto Cup match between Cherno More from Bulgaria and FK Makedonija Skopje of Macedonia.

"In the first case, we had strong circumstantial evidence but none of those involved in the game were prepared to tell us what happened, so there was nothing we could do," Gaillard says. "The other case is before our disciplinary committee. But generally we take the view that football is not facing the same kind of problems that a sport like tennis does. It is not easy to influence a football game because there are so many people involved - 22 players and four officials. No, we are not unduly worried."

Worried or not, Uefa has signed agreements with online bookmakers that will allow the organisation access to betting records on individual matches. It has also established an "integrity unit" charged with investigating claims of match-fixing. So far, two people have been appointed, with a third to follow - a sign, perhaps, that it is more concerned than it is prepared to admit publicly. Nevertheless, there have to be doubts about the effectiveness of three investigators in the face of what some people believe is a tide of corruption - or at least a tide of suspicion.

"When you are a professional gambler, you know when something stinks," says Harry Findlay, one of this country's most high-profile professional gamblers. "I got cocky with Italian football in the past. I thought the prices were too good to miss, and it turned out they were too good to be true."

Yet if Findlay is particularly sceptical of football, he is a stout defender of the much-maligned sport of tennis and the ethics of those who play it. "When the Davydenko story broke, people were going up to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and asking them about betting. They might as well have asked them questions about nuclear physics," he says. "I have been around tennis professionals all of my life, and I've found them to be the most honourable members of society. The same goes for gamblers. I'm a gambler and I own 70 racehorses, but everyone knows that all of them are trying 100% every time they run.

I am not a cheat and nor are 99% of all gamblers, who, as far as I'm concerned, live by a higher moral code than the bankers and the politicians who lied to us all about the stock markets and our pensions."

Findlay's backing for tennis may hearten those who run the game, but they are taking no chances, and have set up an integrity unit under the leadership of Jeff Rees, a former detective who led the drive against corruption in cricket in the aftermath of the revelations that the late South African captain Hansie Cronje had been involved in match-fixing. If things go to plan, the ATP will succeed in transforming tennis's image as successfully as horse-racing in this country has transformed its image in recent years.

Once seen as the most corrupt of sports, racing is now considered one of the cleaner ones, despite a couple of BBC Panorama investigations into corruption and race-fixing, and the very public trail in London of six-time champion jockey Kieren Fallon (and seven others) on charges relating to "allegations of fixing the outcome of horse races . . . and money laundering". The case was thrown out of court in December 2007.

"Sporting authorities need to be aware of the risks to their particular sport," says Ben Gunn, a former police chief constable and now a specialist on sporting integrity, "especially when the betting exchanges allow the opportunity to make bets on losing outcomes. That opens up the danger of exploitation of inside information. Horse racing has been very proactive and probably leads the field in anti-corruption now. They have a very thorough set-up, based on intelligence and investigation, which is able to identify any potential problems."

Set against horse-racing's efforts, the best that can be said of Uefa's response to the problem is that it is puny. A less charitable description would be to say it constitutes potentially lethal failure to recognise that the suspicion of corruption can be just as damaging to a sport as corruption itself. "The football authorities in Europe have a two-to five-year opportunity where they have a chance to tackle this problem before it gets out of hand," says Hill.

"The alternative is they do nothing and lose the sport." His sentiments are echoed by Franzese. "When the general public watching a sport - any sport - come to believe that it is fixed," he warns, "then they will walk away and leave the sport to die."

* * * Hansie Cronje

South Africa's most successful Test captain of all time was well known within his social circles for being careful with money. So careful, in fact, that he became notorious for never buying his team-mates a drink, while those who played a round of golf with him grew to accept that, should they win, any friendly bet was unlikely to be honoured. His love of money would prove to be his tragic undoing.

In April 2000, a phone conversation between Cronje (below left) and a representative of an Indian betting syndicate fell into the hands of Delhi police. Held before the one-day series between India and South Africa in March, it detailed Cronje's suggestion that little-regarded spinner Derek Crookes would open the South African attack in one game, and his agreement that Herschelle Gibbs would not score more than 20 runs in another. Sure enough, in the third match of the series, Gibbs scored 19 runs; in the final game, Crookes sent the first South African deliveries down the track.

A spluttering Cronje initially denied all allegations before backtracking spectacularly, phoning South African cricket chief Ali Bacher to admit that he had not been "entirely honest" and had made "an error of judgment" by accepting $15,000 from a London bookie to "forecast" results.

Cronje was immediately sacked as captain, and at a subsequent commission the "forecasts" were found to be the thin end of the wedge. Between 1996 and 2000, illegal bookmakers had furnished him with $130,000 in match-fixing fees - and a lovely leather jacket. Cronje, who had offered some of the cash to team-mates Gibbs and Henry Williams to "underperform" in one-day matches, was banned for life.

Scott Murray/ © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

* * * 1919 baseball World Series

As baseball’s 1919 regular season wound down, Chicago White Sox first baseman Chick Gandil met with gamblers to hatch a plan — a group of conspirators would throw the World Series and reap the rewards. It wasn’t just about the money — sticking it to the Sox’s notoriously tight-fisted boss, Charles Comiskey, was an added incentive. The White Sox owner paid many of his players well below market value, so Gandil had little difficulty in convincing key teammates to participate in what would become the grandaddy of American sports scandals.

In game one of the World Series, the White Sox’s ace pitcher Eddie Cicotte landed the ball in the back of Cincinnati’s lead-off hitter — a signal to the gamblers, led by Arnold “Big Bankroll” Rothstein, that the fix was in. There were disagreements between Gandil and the gamblers concerning payouts, so participating players made the series closer than it was meant to be.

The underdog Reds of the National League took the title in eight games. By September 1920, players such as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson began to fess up as evidence of a fix emerged.

The left-fielder spewed a courthouse admission, and was met on the steps outside the building by a devastated boy who allegedly uttered the famous, “It ain’t so, Joe, is it?” or “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Jackson denied the encounter ever took place.

Less than a year later, the players under investigation were acquitted by a grand jury, but eight were handed lifetime bans. The 1919 team is forever known as the Black Sox, and the cursed franchise went 85 years before winning the World Series.

David Lengel/© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

* * * Bruce Grobbelaar

Anyone who watched football during the 1980s would have been familiar with the sight of eccentric Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar skittering across the turf of the nation’s penalty areas on his teeth.

But suspicions were aroused in November 1994 when the Sun alleged that Grobbelaar, who had since moved to Southampton, had agreed to throw three games during his time at Liverpool to benefit a Hong Kong betting syndicate.

He appeared bang to rights, having been videotaped in a hotel room sting. Speaking about one of the syndicate’s movers and shakers — nicknamed, risibly, The Short Man — Grobbelaar said: “The Short Man is telling me that I am going to lose a game. So two minutes into the game I pushed the ball into the back of the net. That was against Coventry." The keeper, who was said to have received GBP40,000 for his part in the Newcastle defeat, was then given GBP2,000 with the promise of more to come should he select an upcoming game to fix. "Tell them that it’s on," he says. "I’m in it for one game."

At his subsequent 1997 trial for conspiracy, Grobbelaar pleaded innocence, claiming he was simply gathering evidence of wrongdoing, with the intention of going to the police and blowing the betting ring wide open. Juries failed to reach a verdict in both trial and retrial, and Grobbelaar was later awarded GBP85,000 in libel damages from the Sun newspaper.

The newspaper appealed and in 2001, while no concrete evidence was found of match-fixing, the law lords suggested that Grobbelaar had acted “in a way in which no decent or honest footballer would act”, and demanded that he pay the Sun’s GBP500,000 legal costs. His libel award, meanwhile, was slashed by GBP84,999. “The Britons bankrupted me,” said Grobbelaar, years later. “I came to their country with GBP10 in my pocket and they gave me GBP1 back. But in between I had one hell of a ride.”

Scott Murray/© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009