The world of professional snooker normally spends the first bank holiday weekend of May basking in the sun of publicity that the World Championship final attracts. Instead it sits under a cloud, rocked by allegations that the reigning world champion, John Higgins, agreed to accept a bribe of £260,000 to lose frames.
Higgins has been suspended from all tournaments by the sport’s governing body pending an investigation, while his manager, Pat Mooney, has resigned from the governing body’s board. Both men were filmed by undercover News of the World reporters apparently agreeing a deal to throw four frames at events at unspecified points in the future.
There is no suggestion that Higgins, 34, has ever thrown a frame or fixed a match in his 18-year professional career to date. The Scot, who won the world title in 1998, 2007 and 2009, has denied any wrongdoing, while Mooney claimed that the alleged deal was “manufactured” by the News of the World.
But the allegations could not have surfaced at a worse time for the sport. This year’s world final got underway yesterday at The Crucible in Sheffield and concludes today. Meanwhile, the extensive plan to revive snooker’s fortunes under the guidance of the sports impresario, Barry Hearn - the WPBSA governing body’s new chairman - can only be damaged by the developments.
The credibility of snooker was already in the balance because several players remain under investigation for alleged malpractice in other cases. But the claims about Higgins were met with shock: he is regarded within the game as a role model and ambassador and there has never been any suggestion, public or private, that he has been involved with corruption.
Hearn said that the News of the World’s allegations “brought the very fabric of the game into question” and were “a huge shock and obviously an enormous blow to the integrity of the sport”.
The WPBSA investigation will be led by a recently appointed board member, David Douglas, a former Metropolitan Police detective chief superintendent.
If Higgins were to be found guilty of malpractice, he could expect stiff punishment but Hearn said: "It would be wrong of me to try to judge the length of bans [in that case]... But clearly if allegations were founded you would be talking about a very, very, very lengthy ban."
The News of the World described a meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, on Friday between Higgins, Mooney and reporters. As the tabloid itself said, the reporters “were posing as businessmen interested in organising a series of events linked to the World Snooker Series”.
The WSS has been pioneered by Higgins and Mooney, 47, since Mooney became involved in snooker promotion three years ago. The WSS is based on Higgins’ belief that the game can be successfully promoted in “non-traditional” territories, and has staged events in Germany, Poland, Russia, Portugal and elsewhere.
The NotW quoted Higgins explaining how it is possible for a player to deliberately lose a frame, and says Higgins agreed to lose four frames at different events later this year, although no specific details are given nor is it suggested that specifics were agreed. The context of the quotes is unclear. An edited video of the meeting, published on the NotW website, does not add any detail, although it does include a passage where Higgins theorises about how he can “swallow” the purported bribe, of €300,000 (£261,000).
Mooney said yesterday that the report in the NotW “bears no relation whatsoever to the context or circumstances we were faced with on our arrival and stay in Kiev.”
Mooney claims the reporters pretended to be from a marketing subsidiary of a Russian bank and that the NotW set-up was “supported by their most impressive [fake] website and credentials.”
Mooney claims that the NotW reporters, using aliases, paid for his and Higgins’ business class flights to Ukraine, arranged VIP clearance at the airport and then introduced them to another contact introduced as cricket match-fixer.
Mooney said: “As far I was concerned I was dealing with very serious Russian crime figures.” Mooney says the video clips of the “deal” to lose frames were filmed after he and Higgins agreed to “tell them [two reporters, posing as a businessman and match-fixer] whatever they want to hear and let's get out of here in one piece.”
In a statement, Higgins said: “I became very worried at the way the conversation developed in Kiev. When it was suggested that I throw frames in return for large sums of money, I was really spooked. I just wanted to get out of the hotel and onto the plane home.”
Mooney added: "The News of The World set out deliberately set out to tarnish an unblemished career and character and spared no expense to entrap both John and myself.
"We . . . can certainly be accused of being idiots and possibly naive with hindsight. However to have been so deliberately set up in a foreign country when doing nothing other than working on behalf of snooker is malicious in the extreme."
Hearn said: "We want this matter dealt with as quickly as possible. It will be in days and weeks rather than months and months. I take the view that this is a very serious matter.”
The News of the World said in a statement that it was "surprised at Pat Mooney's comments that he felt intimidated whilst in Kiev given his relaxed manner and enthusiasm throughout his stay".
Mr Mooney had told Sky earlier: "You've got to remember that this has been a completely coerced and press-motivated moment. For anyone involved in snooker, this has been manufactured."
But a spokeswoman for the paper said: "Mr Mooney also had three previous meetings during recent months with our investigations editor at bars and restaurants of his choosing in Edinburgh, a city he knows very well.
"We assume Mr Mooney did not feel intimidated during these meetings where he openly discussed John Higgins and match-fixing."
She added: "At no time whilst in Kiev did Mr Mooney or Mr Higgins show any signs of being under duress or in any way unhappy at being in our company.
"Our film and audio evidence on Mr Mooney and Mr Higgins are available to the World Professional Billiards & Snooker Association."