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Player union is at forefront of battle against criminality

TONY HIGGINS has spent the last couple of years fronting FIFPro's high-profile campaign to combat match-fixing, getting on first-name terms with those at Interpol and gaining the inside track on the poisonous grip that international criminals currently have on the beautiful game.

A convicted match-fixer correctly predicted the scoreline in the World Cup match between Cameroon and Croatia. Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images
A convicted match-fixer correctly predicted the scoreline in the World Cup match between Cameroon and Croatia. Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images

His sadness over seeing the World Cup tarnished by allegations of such corruption is plainly evident. To suggest that he is remotely surprised, however, would be wholly disingenuous.

Officials at the football federation of Cameroon have announced, as part of a wider investigation ordered by the country's president Paul Biya into the nation's shambolic Group A campaign, that they are looking in to claims that seven players were involved in rigging fixtures in Brazil.

The assertions were made in the German newspaper, Der Spiegel, by a convicted match-fixer from Singapore, Wilson Raj Perumal, who was detained by police in Finland in April on an international arrest warrant. Perumal correctly predicted the scoreline for the Africans' 4-0 loss to Croatia and stated a player would be sent off, with Alex Song being shown a red card for lashing out at Mario Mandzukic off the ball.

Cameroon, whose players initially refused to board the plane to South America following a row over bonus payments, are also probing reports of irregularities around their other two defeats to Brazil and Mexico.

As he prepares for a meeting on match-fixing later today at the Dutch headquarters of FIFPro, essentially the global trade union for footballers, Higgins does not attempt to sugarcoat the issue of players being recruited by gangs to influence the outcome of games. His recent work as chairman of the organisation's Don't Fix It programme has taught him that football has a serious problem on its hands.

Indeed, FIFPro have unearthed so much evidence that they have approached the European Union with a funding application aimed at allowing them to begin a fresh research project that will extend to 22 different countries around the globe.

"People have asked me in the past if match-fixing could ever happen at a World Cup," said Higgins, the former head of PFA Scotland. "My reply was: 'Why not?'.

"I always said I wouldn't be surprised. International criminality has no barriers and no boundaries.

"It is really sad that the cloud of match-fixing is now hanging over a major FIFA tournament. The idea of it happening at a World Cup is something we would never have thought about even at the last tournament, in South Africa in 2010, because no-one really had any knowledge of what these operations were, but I think people now realise this is the extent of what we are dealing with.

"We were surprised by the extent of match-fixing when we first looked into it, producing a document called the Black Book on Eastern Europe that can be accessed through our website, and we are now receiving contact from player associations all over the world because they realise they have to develop strategies to deal with this.

"Criminality exists. However, if we can make it as hard as possible for matchfixers to operate within football, the hope is they will go elsewhere."

Higgins is eager to alter the general perception that it is only players accepting bribes. He insists greater attention must be paid to those further up the tree who find themselves in the position of facilitators.

"What the evidence has shown so far is that there has been a lot of people suspected at club official level and federation level," said Higgins.

"In Russia, there is talk of putting players in jail for five or six years. That is all very well, but I equate it to the drug trade. If you put the poor victim on the street in jail for five years, there will be another poor victim to replace him. But how do you get to the head of the serpent?

"To organise match-fixing you need middlemen and these are often club officials or people within football associations."

FIFPro are reluctant to offer any view on the exact scale of match-fixing around the globe, but Higgins is in no doubt over the damage it can leave in its wake.

"It is hard to know the full extent of it, but what we do know is that match-fixing has been devastating in some parts of the world," he said. "In Malaysia, it has effectively destroyed football.

"There were burgeoning crowds there in the 1990s, but people now have no wish to go to a game because they don't know if they can believe the result."

With the gambling industry having altered dramatically in recent years and markets now existing on almost everything than can unfold within a match, players can make money from committing an act that would not necessarily have an influence on a final result. Higgins, though, warns that such low-level involvement is only stage one of the game.

"A player can be seduced into something innocuous and get a few quid," said Higgins. "Once you commit an act for these people, though, they do not allow you to wriggle free."

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