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Michael Chopra reveals football’s gambling problem: 'I signed for Sunderland in order to pay my debts off'

Players bet £30k a sitting, says former Newcastle striker, who blew £2m and had loan sharks after him

Michael Chopra, the former Newcastle United, Cardiff City and Sunderland striker, claimed he would gamble up to £30,000 in cash with other players on the team bus en route to matches while he was still a teenager with the St James’ Park club.

Chopra, giving evidence as a witness during a trial at Newcastle Crown Court, claims he was threatened by Scottish loan sharks later in his career as he ran up huge debts and joined Sunderland because the sizeable signing-on fee helped pay off some of the money he owed. He said that during his time with Ipswich the club and the Professional Footballers’ Association organised a £250,000 loan to do likewise while his father, Minty, also revealed in court yesterday that he had sold his house to pay his son’s gambling debts. Chopra told the court he estimated he had lost £2m through gambling.

“I started gambling when I was about 17, when I first played for Newcastle I was travelling with the first team,” said Chopra, who came through the youth ranks at Newcastle to play alongside the likes of Alan Shearer, Kieron Dyer, Titus Bramble and Craig Bellamy. “Players would gamble on the bus and I got involved. We would take thousands of pounds on to the bus, anything up to £30,000.

“It might change hands playing cards on the bus, we would go to the bank before and take out the money. It was part of team bonding. We were playing for real cash, if you were playing for £30,000 you would have it with you at the time.”

It was another painful day for football’s image as Chopra’s revelations were followed by the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to charge two men as part of an investigation into an international match-fixing ring that is said to have attempted to rig matches in England’s lower leagues. Players’ unions have called for all involved in the professional game to be better, and compulsorily, educated over match-fixing. Unions have previously raised concerns that accruing huge gambling debts leaves players open to the approaches of match-fixers. There is no suggestion that Chopra has been involved in match-fixing.

Gambling remains very much a live issue in the game through players amassing huge debts;  breaking betting rules laid down by governing bodies – Andros Townsend was suspended last season for breaching regulations; and, most seriously of all, the rise of the illegal betting markets that have led to the mushrooming of match-fixing across Europe over the last decade. Again, there is no suggestion that Townsend has been involved in match-fixing.

Chopra, who turns 30 later this month, was deep in debt by the time he joined Ipswich Town in 2011. He said: “I had loan sharks turning up at the training ground when I was at Ipswich. They came up to me and asked me for my autograph and said I better get myself into the club and get that money now.

“They said they knew what car I was driving and they would follow me until I paid them. They said they knew what school my little boy went to and where my parents lived and where I lived in Ipswich. I felt sick that I had put my family in that situation from my gambling.”

Chopra, now with Blackpool, moved from Cardiff to Sunderland, then newly promoted to the Premier League, in 2007 attracted largely by the signing-on fee he would receive.

“I was at Cardiff for one year and then I went to Sunderland,” he said. “I got a signing-on fee and paid my debts off. The main reason I went to Sunderland was to pay my debts off. When you go to the Premier League you earn more money.”

Chopra was giving evidence at the trial of four men on drugs charges. As part of the case, the prosecution says a sum of £50,000 found in a car was drug money but one of the accused instead claims it was cash to pay-off a loan shark from Liverpool on behalf of Chopra.

Earlier this year Chopra said he had “voluntarily excluded himself from all betting institutions… to help me fight this illness”. That came as part of a statement in response to being charged by the British Horseracing Authority for “serious breaches of the rules of racing”.

Chopra said he could not afford to defend himself and in January he was banned from all racecourses for 10 years after the BHA’s investigation into a “corrupt network” that gambled on horses to lose.