Declan Hill, whose matchfixing expose briefly put the frighteners on football, believes its gambling and internet-powered explosion can be beaten . . . but only by concerted action right up to World Cup level.
Hill has no illusions about corruption in sport. He acknowledged in London last night that the fix stretched as far back as the original Olympics in ancient Greece.
But professional sport’s own exponential advance had also rendered it vulnerable to the malicious dark arts and ‘artists’ armed to exploit the new-age concoction of technological, cultural and economic evolution.
“It’s injected sport with a bizarre form of steroids. It’s happening now, in our generation, on our watch. Unless we fight it, it will destroy sport,” Hill told a seminar on the subject at Birkbeck College.
Many in sport, and football in particular, believe Hill is a bogeyman who appears only at night and will be gone, along with his spectres of doom, by the light of kickoff. But the evidence he has compiled suggests otherwise.
At least he believes the war for the soul of sport can be won, though he fears football may be peering for solutions in the wrong direction.
Hill does not speculate about the size of the international gambling industry though others have assessed it as the equal of the world’s eighth greatest national economy.
But he told his audience of experts and explorers into the nether world that 60 or 70pc of the international betting market was based in Asia where “it has destroyed most sports.”
Sumo, motorboat racing, basketball and, most of all, the world’s most popular game had all been reduced to “utter shambles” by the malign influence of the sports gambling market and its protectors in high places.
As an example, Hill quoted an exception which proved his rule. He said: “The president of the Indonesia Football Association was arrested for corruption. This is really rare in Indonesia. He was put on trial which is really rare in Indonesia.
“Not only that but he was convicted and sentenced to two years’ jail which he actually – which is really rare in Indonesia. Yet he never gave up being president of the Indonesian football association and continued it to run it from a jail cell in Jakarta.”
Asian sport fans, recognising the local lack of credibility, switched their attention to European and North American sports with results evidenced by waves of arrests in Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Turkey and too many others.
These others, said Hill, had included Australia most recently as well as South Africa which, before the 2010 World Cup under a previous administration, was “an open house for the fixers.”
The context and possible solutions are outlined in Hill’s new book: The Insider’s Guide to Matchfixing in Football.
Just like FIFPro’s ‘black book’ survey, Hill believes that a crucial weakness – which the fixers exploit – is the failure of too many clubs to pay their players on time.
Not only clubs either. Hill, with a prescient warning seven months ahead of the extravaganza in Brazil, warned: “You can be a player for an African team in the World Cup, watched by billions around the world, and not receiving your due salary. Some are being paid. You’re not.”
No World Cup is complete without its player/pay row. Next June, Hill appeared to be suggesting, keep an eye on the matches being played by a squad which has been squabbling with its federation over pay.
Meanwhile, in Croatia “football is dying,” Italy and Turkey were “dead men walking” and matchfixing was “creeping into western Europe.”
That included Britain.
Hill said: “Many people are sleep walking here in the UK. I don’t think we have a massive problem but there are certain signs. One is the culture of gambling among the players . . . that’s a gateway to criminality and fixing.
“Look at the recent Australian matchfixing: they didn’t bring players from Malaysia but from England. What is that saying about the lower leagues? Is there something there now? Absolutely.”
Football’s governing bodies talked insistently about education, considering young players most at risk. But this is where Hill considered them fatally mistaken. His research indicated that the most corruptible are those players coming towards the end of their careers and with family dependents.
He said: “If we want to beat this new wave of matchfixing then we have to take care of our older players . . . make sure they get paid. Sport is under threat but we can beat the matchfixers. We should beat them. We must beat them.”