Tuesday 26 September 2017

Snooker: Too late Ronnie, you've already stirred the hornets' nest

O'Sullivan climbdown fails to dispel unease over match-fixing, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

ONE of the many idiosyncrasies with which the late Alex Higgins used to treat his army of fans was the excessive cleaning of the cue ball between frames and, occasionally, during them.

With the rag he'd use to wipe his cue down, Higgins would take to the white ball with a vigour comparable to a bowler at the crease seeking furiously to apply shine. The ball might have been white but, for Higgins, it couldn't be clean enough.

A couple of years back, when his namesake John got into a spot of bother with snooker authorities over claims he was conspiring to fix matches, Higgins extended the metaphor to a number of unidentified top professionals who he claimed had taken bribes to throw matches. "Just because they wear crisp white shirts," Higgins said with an eloquence that remained with him to the end, "it doesn't make them clean."

Those names followed Higgins to his grave in 2010, but the ghost of his claims was resurrected last week when Ronnie O'Sullivan, in some respects Higgins' true heir on and off the table, followed the news that Stephen Lee had been found guilty of match-fixing by stirring the pot to the tune that there were many others in the game equally culpable and that Lee's misfortune was simply in getting caught in the act.

Not surprisingly, O'Sullivan's intervention elicited the fury of many, including his World Snooker overlords, and was followed a day later by a rather submissive climbdown. "I have no intention of undermining the integrity of the sport that I love and enjoy participating in so much and firmly believe that my tweets were taken out of context," O'Sullivan said. "Now let's play snooker!"

The problem is, though, that while the game will go on, it will do so to the backdrop of O'Sullivan's claims of widespread corruption. For all the retractions, he couldn't unsay what he had said. We couldn't unhear it. If a reigning world champion in any other sport had made similar claims, do you imagine they would have been so summarily dismissed? Was this merely 'Ronnie being Ronnie' as the most popular theory went?

Clearly, we are in a quandary here. We suspect a certain level of corruption in the game, but can only guess the level. If Lee picks up a life-ban when his punishment is handed down on Tuesday, that will indeed send out a powerful message, but what still stands out is the manner in which he went about it, the sheer stupidity and naked greed which proved his inevitable undoing.

For whatever reason, Lee seemed firmly plotted on a course of self-destruction. He had already been investigated by the Gambling Commission regarding the critical series of games in 2007 and 2008 when he faced John Higgins in the Premier League last October, a match that prompted such irregular betting patterns that Lee was suspended pending an investigation the following day. It was the last competitive snooker match he played.

And while it was unquestionably sad that Lee, once regarded as one of the brightest talents in the game, should so willfully have chucked away his career, it is hard to feel any sense of shock about it. It may have sounded convincing to quote career earnings in excess of €2m, but when you consider that Lee had been on the professional circuit for nigh on 20 years, those figures actually sound exceedingly modest.

For snooker, its best days long behind it, each day a grim battle to find and keep sponsors, this is the bracing reality. The top players might earn up to €500,000 a year, but you don't have to trail your finger far down the ranking table to locate the strugglers where the temptation to snag a few quid here and there is strongest. Nothing at the level of Lee's greed or idiocy. The competent fixer will never fall prey to such naivete.

It's not just snooker, of course. Think of the soccer players who have been nabbed recently, the four English players in Singapore last week, names you wouldn't have known. Think of the increasing number of jockeys falling foul of corruption laws, nearly all of the journeyman persuasion. That doesn't mean those at the top aren't prone to the odd bit of skulduggery too, just that it's more likely to stem from the other end of the pile. Common sense dictates as much.

In all of this, of course, there is a bracing irony. While it is through the co-operation of the major betting firms that illegal activities such as Lee's are most likely to come to light, it's also true that sports with a distinct gambling ethos are more vulnerable to shady practices. When the three most prestigious events on the Snooker calendar are sponsored by betting companies, we can at least ask whether that is a desirable association to have.

Ultimately, you could dismiss O'Sullivan's claims as unsubstantiated tittle-tattle and feel smug that, whatever else, snooker, unlike other sports, doesn't have a doping problem. But then you can, at least, test for drugs. When it comes to match-fixing, it seems, only the genuinely stupid get caught.

Sunday Independent

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