x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Peering at sport's dark side

Forging a glittering reputation as the top exponent of any sport can take a lifetime to achieve. Destroying that reputation can be done in a matter of seconds.

Higgins under pressure at the Crucible this year.
Higgins under pressure at the Crucible this year.

Forging a glittering reputation as the top exponent of any sport, whether through an individual pursuit or becoming a vital part of an all-conquering team, can take a lifetime to achieve. Destroying that reputation can be done in a matter of seconds. Whatever happens to John Higgins in the wake of distressing allegations of match-fixing which are being investigated by leading snooker administrators, his position as an esteemed figurehead of a profession which badly needs untarnished personalities has been lost forever.

At the moment the world No 1, and the reigning world champion until late last night, is facing only allegations that he freely discussed the mechanics of arranging how certain frames could be lost to enable gambling syndicates to clean up by betting heavily on the outcome of those rigged matches. In return for arranging those easy-pickings for the East European underworld, Higgins, again allegedly, was due to pocket £261,000 (Dh1.46m) to supplement the vast fortune he has earned during a hitherto exemplary career which has brought three world titles and 21 tournament victories.

He has vowed to do everything possible to clear his name and may indeed be exonerated. But the one question which will not go away is why was he in Ukraine talking to undercover reporters from the News of the World when the battle to succeed him as world champion at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre was drawing to a climax? That key "no smoke without fire" issue threatens to undo all the hard work snooker has done over the years to clean up its image from the days of the dingy billiard halls when "hustlers" preyed on unsuspecting victims, missing the simplest of shots before "doing the business" when it really mattered.

The ease with which an apparently innocent mistake can be made on the snooker table has always left that sport vulnerable to suggestions of malpractice and Higgins repeatedly rammed home that very point during the taped interview with his Kiev hosts that was made available to television news channels. Other sports have been in the firing line, too, particularly boxing where fighters taking a dive at a prearranged moment from the most inoffensive of sucker punches brought that noble art into disrepute.

Rarely has that been better illustrated than on a shameful night in the United States in May 1965 when Sonny Liston, a fearsome ex-convict who had been deposed as world heavyweight champion by a young upstart called Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali), fell in the first round of their eagerly anticipated rematch. Slow motion replays were still to be introduced to television audiences at that time but even at full speed the inescapable conclusion was that the Ali punch that floored a once-great champion would hardly have ruffled the composure of a schoolgirl.

That was my earliest memory of possible match-fixing but a couple that were witnessed with the naked eye involved high-profile goalkeepers plying their trade in the English Premier League reputedly the most competitive and straightest league in the world. On one amazing night in Newcastle in 1993, Liverpool's Bruce Grobbelaar conceded three almost identical goals to opposing striker Andrew Cole, now a columnist for The National a bizarre performance which led to accusations of fixing and became the subject of a long and bitter libel action involving The Sun newspaper.

The dispute took nearly a decade to resolve at the end of which House of Lords law lords overturned an appeal verdict against Grobbelaar and ruled in favour of the eccentric goalkeeper on a legal technicality. In doing so, however, they pointed the finger firmly at Grobbelaar by reducing his original libel damages of £85,000 to a token payment of £1. I was also in attendance at the extraordinary final match of that 1993-4 season when Everton needed to defeat Wimbledon to retain Premier League status. Two goals down in next to no time, that task looked hopeless but a nightmare goalkeeping performance by Hans Segers brought about a stunning 3-2 transformation.

The Dutchman was eventually cleared of any accusations alongside his Wimbledon teammate John Fashanu and Grobbelaar, plus a Malaysian businessman. There had been no reprieve, though, in the 1960s for the Sheffield Wednesday trio of Peter Swan, David "Bronco" Layne and Tony Kay. They were all imprisoned after being convicted of accepting bribes to lose a 1962 fixture against Ipswich Town. Match officials are universally accepted to be whiter than white when it comes to avoiding areas of scandal but that assumption was blown out of the water when Robert Hoyzer, a young German referee, admitted fixing or trying to fix nine matches. The judge who sent Hoyzer to prison in 2005 declared that he had violated his duty of neutrality.

Cricket, which is currently embroiled in the Lalat Modi Indian Premier League affair, has had the finger of suspicion pointed in its direction too frequently for comfort. The Australian touring squad of 1981 still have to deny vehemently accusations that they took advantage of the massive odds of 500-to-1 against England at a pivotal moment of that year's Ashes series when Ian Botham rescued the home side from seemingly certain defeat and steered them to one of the most glorious victories in Test history.

Then there was the infamous Hansie Cronje affair when the former South African cricket captain, who died in a plane crash in 2002, admitted "forecasting" results to bookmakers in offering a defence to a charge of match-fixing. Cronje was once memorably but naively praised at a Test presentation ceremony by his victorious England counterpart Nasser Hussain for doing so much to turn what was developing into a tame draw into a thrilling finish.

Hussain was unaware that Cronje had guaranteed a definitive result that day. Cronje later told an inquiry that his passion for the game of cricket was at least matched by his love for money. Bob Woolmer is, sadly, another big name cricketer who can no longer talk about betting irregularities. The former England batsman was found dead in a Jamaican hotel room the day after the Pakistan team he was coaching at the time had suffered a humiliating 2007 World Cup defeat by unheralded Ireland.

Rumours were circulating at the time that Woolmer, 58, was on the verge of exposing match fixing in a game he had served with distinction. Horse racing, a business that is inextricably linked to the betting industry, will always be under the microscope and its cleanliness was most famously called into question when Kieren Fallon, the top Irish rider who was the six-time champion jockey in Britain, was one of a group of six accused of plotting to throw races.

They were all acquitted by an Old Bailey jury in 2007 on the directions of the trial judge. Fallon discovered then what Higgins is learning now: to accuse top sportsmen or women of impropriety can be just as damaging as convicting them. @Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae