The disturbing link between organised crime and sport

By Dylan Cleaver

At the cutting edge of investigative journalism, Declan Hill has made a living connecting the dots between organised crime and sport. Photo / Thinkstock.
At the cutting edge of investigative journalism, Declan Hill has made a living connecting the dots between organised crime and sport. Photo / Thinkstock.

He's chatted with the head of the Russian mafia and taken hidden cameras into meetings of match-fixers but, investigative journalist and academic Declan Hill tells Dylan Cleaver, he still loves sport.

Declan Hill could tell me a lot more than he has, but why should he do my job as well as his?

At the cutting edge of investigative journalism, the 44-year-old Canadian has made a living connecting the dots between organised crime and sport.

These are not little dots, but big flashing lights that most sports administrators and journalists choose to ignore. There's a reason for that: it's hard work, it can get messy ... and it's dangerous.

He saw that early in his putting-his-nose-into-places-other-people-wouldn't career.

The widow of a murdered Russian ice hockey administrator explained how she and her husband were leaving their holiday home when a flatbed truck pulled up with a manned Kalashnikov mounted on a tripod on the back.

"This team of assassins fired into the windscreen, killing the chauffeur, killing her husband and seriously wounding her," Hill says. "He was the second president of the Russian ice hockey federation killed in this Mob style."

Hill talked to the widow in the course of a piece he was doing linking the Russian mafia to the National Hockey League, one of North America's 'Big Four' leagues alongside the NFL, MLB and NBA.

Radio Sport's Kent Johns talks to Declan Hill:

"I was stunned to find that the links were clear, substantiated and corroborated. We interviewed the guy the US Congress had identified as the head of the Russian mafia at his offices in Moscow - which were firebombed about six weeks later.

"He had links with a really prominent superstar of hockey. This was repeated constantly across the Russian hockey spectrum. The involvement of the Mob in former Soviet countries and Russian sports was endemic in a way that beggars belief on almost any scale."

That only escalated when he was invited to dinner with said Russian mafia don.

The sound/cameraman refused to go on safety grounds but Hill and his mentor and producer Neil Docherty reasoned that if the Russian mafia head invites you to dinner, "you better turn up".

Conversation is awkward until it turns from hockey to football.

"He proceeds to tell us this story of how he was at the 1994 World Cup final at Pasadena. He's not just at the stadium, he's in the VIP section, the front row. There's Joao Havelange, the head of Fifa, there's Sepp Blatter, who will become head of Fifa next to him, there's the president of the Russian soccer federation one seat over, and then there's this guy.

"That's like being at the Vatican on the balcony with the Pope on Easter Sunday. It doesn't get more important symbolically than that.

"I had two thoughts going through my head. One, I really want to get out of this place alive. Two, if I do, I want to understand how this man is at the epicentre of world soccer. How did he get there? That's the beginning of my interest of corruption in sports."

That interest has led him around the world as he wallowed in the muck of corruption. He exposed the rigging of judging at figure skating tournaments, including the Olympics, but the biggest mark he made was exposing the Asian betting syndicates that fixed football at the highest levels all over the world. That resulted in the groundbreaking book, The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime.

So, how prevalent is corruption?

To illustrate his point, Hill uses Antonio Conte as an example, pointing out the Italian national coach and Chelsea manager-elect has served a ban for his role in rigging matches yet he is about to take over one of the biggest clubs in the world.

"How can you take this guy seriously? There are 32 professional football teams in Italy now under investigation for match fixing. There are 45 under investigation for money laundering. It is an industrial system of corruption.

"In Turkey it is even worse. In Greece 101 people were arrested for this sort of activity. These are major, major, major hotbeds of corruption.

"It is my belief that in 5 to 10 years, the football leagues in those countries will effectively be over."

Radio Sport's D'Arcy Waldegrave chats with NZF boss Andy Martin about match fixing:

Hill divides the sporting world neatly into two categories: high corruption and low corruption. New Zealand he labels low corruption and says if the integrity can be maintained, it is marketable.

"Suddenly New Zealand rugby and football is very marketable. People can watch it and know the players are playing honestly. People can bet on it knowing it's got integrity," Hill says.

There is, unfortunately, the awkward situation of the three former New Zealand internationals investigated for fixing cricket matches, which resulted in 11 life bans for Lou Vincent and a perjury trial for Chris Cairns, which the former allrounder won.

In low-corruption countries like New Zealand, Hill says, it is not the organised crime and betting nexus that is the concern, but something much simpler.

"Nobody has seriously addressed the problem of mental health, and this is New Zealand and across the sports world. They regard the physical health of their athletes as paramount and if they think about the mental health of their athletes it is to motivate them to be better winners.

"This is what happened to Lou Vincent. He got himself involved in a personal [battle] with addictive behaviour and personal destruction. New Zealand has to address that issue and that is, how do you prevent the next Lou Vincent, because the next one is coming - that's inevitable.

"Addiction is the gateway to corruption."

When you live among such malfeasance, surely it must warp your view of the world, and particularly sport. It seems fair to ask Hill whether you can do his job and still love it.

"Do I love sport? Yeah. In fact I would argue very, very strongly that I love sports far more strongly than 99.95 per cent of sports journalists. I've risked my life [and] dedicated my career to protecting its integrity. I'll put my love of sports against those of [sports journalists] any day of the week."

There is a limit, however, to love.

"If someone wants me to watch a Turkish football match, or a Greek match or an Italian one ... why waste my time? Even if it's being played honestly I'm watching it thinking, pffft.

"I have no issue watching New Zealand sports. It's fantastic. Could there possibly be corruption here. That's your job to find out ..."

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 29 Sep 2016 06:32:49 Processing Time: 983ms