Interview with Match-Fixing Investigator Declan Hill: 'I Am Sure the Game Was Manipulated'

Canadian journalist Declan Hill spoke to SPIEGEL about his investigation into betting syndicates in Asia. He claims to have uncovered evidence that the result of the last-16 football match between Ghana and Brazil during the 2006 World Cup may have been fixed.

World Cup 2006.
AFP

World Cup 2006.

SPIEGEL: You have spent three years investigating the international betting mafia. Have you lost all pleasure in football?

Declan Hill: I love football the way one loves a woman, but by now I ask myself quite early on in a match, whether there is anything suspicious going on. There are no precise statistics about betting manipulation in football, of course, but it is shocking how often people in the world of betting talk about matches that have been manipulated – not just in Asia or Eastern Europe, but also in the major football leagues, such as in Germany, and even during world championships.

SPIEGEL: Is that something you would have expected?

Hill: Absolutely not, and that’s why I took plenty of time in the book to allow the reader to follow my own process of realisation. I still vividly remember standing at the edge of a dusty track after meeting an informer in Ghana, with the wind blowing down from the Sahara, thinking: This is just incredible.

SPIEGEL: In your book you say you think that the match between Brazil and Ghana in the round before the quarterfinals at the 2006 World Cup was fixed. The starting point for your investigation is an infamous Asian fixer. How did you meet him?

Hill: That was a drawn-out process that took months. In the Asian gambling world, every insider knows his name. He’s said to have been manipulating games for 15 years, his name turns up in the case files of match fixing in Asia. He organizes the bets and their manipulation. In my book I called him Lee Chin. In November 2005 he invited me to a golf club on the outskirts of Bangkok. The conversation that ensued over the next two and a quarter hours was one of the strangest I have ever had.

SPIEGEL: In what way?

Hill: He claimed he was a leading member of a syndicate that manipulated football matches. He said he had 16 runners, that is middle men who approach the players, coaches or referees. And all the time we were talking to each other, one of his two phones would keep ringing. One call came from the Philippines, where the Southeast Asian Games were taking place at the time. After the phone call he said he had made sure that Laos would only lose 0:1 to Singapore. Fine, manipulated games at Asian sporting events, that isn’t all that surprising, but then he claimed to manipulate games at other major sporting events.

SPIEGEL: Did he give examples?

Hill: He said he had been at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 and had seen to it that Tunisia lost the opening match against Portugal. He claimed that he approached a couple of the Tunisian players. They refused to take money from him, for religious reasons, so instead he alleges he sent them beautiful Mexican prostitutes. Tunisia lost 0:2. Lee Chin said: “I won a great deal of money and everyone was contented.”

SPIEGEL: Did you believe him?

Hill: That evening I was torn to and fro all the time. Just before the interview Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin publicly voiced the suspicion that many events at the Southeast Asian Games had been manipulated. As regards the 1996 Olympic Games, Chin’s assertions can hardly be verified any more. What is interesting is that finally, just before 10:30, one of Chin’s telephones rang once again. He spoke in some language which I did not understand. After the call he said the Bundesliga game between Hannover 96 and 1. FC Kaiserslautern, which was just about to begin a few thousand kilometers away, had been fixed. Naturally I had heard of the Hoyzer scandal in German football, but it nevertheless seemed incredible to me that this sort of thing should be possible in a major league in which the professionals earn so much money. He did not tell me who was purportedly on the take but the match ended with the result that he predicted and 10 days later is was publicly revealed that some matches in the South-East Asian Games had been fixed, and a number of players were imprisoned.

SPIEGEL: But why did Chin agree to meet you in the first place and tell you this kind of thing?

Hill: I asked myself the same question for a long time. Maybe because he wanted to prove to the world how good he is, and a book like this may have sounded tempting to him. Maybe he felt flattered by the fact that someone from such an alien world -- a journalist and academic from Oxford University -- took him seriously and treated him respectfully. Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that, thanks to my research into match-fixing, I spoke his language.

SPIEGEL: He wanted you to recognize his art?

Hill: I think so.

SPIEGEL: He is a gambler, did he play with you too?

Hill: Perhaps.

SPIEGEL: Why do you safeguard his identity and refrain from using his real name in your book?

Hill: Because he would kill me.

SPIEGEL: Really?

Hill: I know I’m playing with fire, but there is a limit to my courage and heroism. I was often warned before interviews to leave the subject alone. Two journalists, Johnson Fernandez and Lazarus Rokk, who exposed match fixing in Malaysia some years ago, were sent a fake bullet bearing the sign “the next one is for real.”

SPIEGEL: Chin then offered to allow you to witness him fixing a match during the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. That sounds like a cock-and-bull story.

Hill: Yes, but that’s what happened.

SPIEGEL: How exactly did he go about it?

Hill: After our first meeting in November 2005 I stayed in touch with him. He then reported about the preparations and the name of one country was mentioned very often: Ghana. He told me that people from his syndicate had already been in touch with a few of Ghana’s players during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and that he had succeeded at the time in getting Ghana to lose the final match against Japan. He claimed contacts existed now and that things would go ahead. Then, on 25 May 2006, he told me to come to a Kentucky Fried Chicken branch in a shopping center in the north of Bangkok. I was to witness the deal being negotiated. Why was I allowed to be present? No idea. I sometimes got the feeling that Chin viewed my skepticism as a personal affront.

SPIEGEL: What happened there?

Hill: When I entered, four men were sitting at a table: Chin, next to him two younger Chinese, and a black guy, a large, athletic man in a blue shirt and blue jeans. I sat down a few tables further along, I was rather nervous, my hidden camera wasn’t working, instead I tried to take a photograph with my mobile phone. The black man was supposed to be a runner, the middle man for the Ghanaian team. Chin said that the man claimed he had access to a number of players and officials from his country but that he needed an initial down payment in order to secure the team’s trust. The meeting lasted a little over an hour. Later Chin phoned me and was jubilant.

SPIEGEL: Did you know who the black man was?

Hill: Chin told me that in his office, two days after the meeting. He said he was a coach for Ghana’s under 17s team, someone who knew his way around Ghanaian football. Chin said the man had obtained the consent of eight of Ghana’s players. A few days earlier I had read in the newspaper that Ghana’s team would receive $20,000 for each victory at the Word Cup. I asked Chin whether that wouldn’t be more important to Ghana’s players. He replied: “But a victory is not 100 percent certain. And each player is guaranteed to receive $30,000 from me. Get it?” And at the end of our conversation he asked me whether I had taken a photograph in the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. “I was able to see you,” he said. “I know you tried to take a picture. I know. I know everything.”

SPIEGEL: Did he threaten you?

Hill: No, but I felt very uneasy, after all I was recording this conversation too. After that I realized I had to be more careful.

SPIEGEL: You then flew straight to the World Cup in Germany?

Hill: I watched Ghana’s first game against Italy in my flat in Oxford. Incidentally, Chin had predicted that Italy would win by at least two goals. Italy won 2:0, the performance of the Ghanaian team felt very strange, they seemed to play well but I thought there was something odd. Even before the final whistle I jotted down my opinion on a slip of paper: This game was manipulated. Now to this day, I do not know if that is true or not, but I flew to Germany where I booked into the Hotel Maritim, where the Ghana team was staying in Würzburg, to find out.

SPIEGEL: Was that easy to do?

Hill: Interestingly enough, it was. Anyone who wanted to could get up close to the Ghanaian players. During the six days I was there, I was in touch with almost all the players, coaches and officials. No problem. Of course I looked around for the Ghanaian runner, the man from the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Bangkok, but I never saw him. It was very sociable in the hotel, and superficially everything seemed to be in order, no sign of the runner, no Asians hanging around. Two days before the match against Brazil in the round of 16, Chin called and said that the deal with someone in the Ghana camp was on, 100 percent, he said. He was absolutely certain Ghana would lose by at least two goals.

SPIEGEL: June 27, 2006, the match ended 3:0 for Brazil.

Hill: The Ghanaians played as though they were putting their whole heart into it, but then there were a number of stupid mistakes: passes didn’t succeed, the defense was careless, the team collected three stupid goals. After the game I was in the stands in Dortmund with tears in my eyes because I was convinced, at least emotionally, that the match had been fixed. I phoned Chin from the stadium: “I didn’t believe you, but you are a genius.” He said: “How can I be a genius if I earn so little money with this?”

SPIEGEL: What did you do in order to find out whether your feelings weren’t misleading you?

Hill: After the World Cup I first of all had to finish writing my dissertation in Oxford but in the summer of 2007 I flew to Ghana to find the runner. A crazy plan really, but if there was anyone who could confirm Chin’s stories then it was that runner.

SPIEGEL: How did you find him?

Hill: By chance. While I was in Ghana, Ghana’s under-23 team played Iran. After the game there were reports that someone had tried to fix the game, one of the coaches was dismissed from the team. A newspaper printed a photograph of the coach: it was the man from the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. His name is Abukari Damba.

SPIEGEL: And then you met him?

Hill: Yes, four times in all. The first time was in a bar called the Bus Stop, and after that in the Beverly Hills Hotel both places in Accra. Damba had been one of the goalkeepers in the great Ghanaian team surrounding Abédi Pelé in the 1990s. Later he played in Malaysia and met a Malaysian match fixer there. He had been the under-17s coach for Ghana and for a short time an assistant coach of the under-23 team. At a hearing by the Ghanaian association about the attempted fixed match against Iran, Damba confessed to having put players from the team in touch with the two Asians and an Iranian, and to have received money in return.

SPIEGEL: And what did Damba say about the World Cup match between Ghana and Brazil?

Hill: He had also been in Würzburg with the same match fixer from Malaysia, where they had stayed in a hotel opposite the Ghanaian team quarters, and Damba also admitted that he had gotten the Malaysian access to the team and that the match fixer also approached the team captain Steven Appiah.

SPIEGEL: And?

Hill: Damba says that he doesn’t know what happened after that.

SPIEGEL: Did you speak with Appiah about the accusations?

Hill: Not just with Appiah, but also with the goalkeeper Richard Kingson and other national players too. They all assured me that they were completely unaware of any possible manipulation of the team in Germany. However one of the players did admit that he had been approached by Asian betters in 2004 during the Olympic Games. And they all said that Appiah was the captain of the team and that I should to talk to him. I met with him in an industrial area in Accra. We talked in his car and he said that he had been approached a number of times in the course of his career and that he had taken money too. The first time was in 1997 during the under-17s World Cup in Malaysia and also in 2004 at the Olympic Games in Athens; however he had been given money in order to win games, not to lose them. He claimed that he then shared the bonus among all the players.

SPIEGEL: Ghana’s team captain, who was until recently signed up to Fenerbahce Istanbul, says that he accepted money from outside agents?

Hill: That’s exactly what he said. I wanted to confirm this, so I spoke to him again over the phone, and he repeated his account.

SPIEGEL: And during the 2006 World Cup in Germany?

Hill: He was approached there too, but he says that he refused. I also asked him whether the Malaysian had gone to other teams too. He replied: “Yes, I think he did the rounds.”

SPIEGEL: But you don’t know which of Ghana’s players might have been involved?

Hill: No, but I am nevertheless sure that the game was manipulated. Once again: there is an Asian betting manipulator, Lee Chin, who announces that he will fix a game during the World Cup. He allows me to witness a preparatory meeting at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Bangkok. This meeting is attended by the former Ghanaian national player Abukari Damba and a match fixer from Malaysia. The two of them travel to Germany and approach players. And the match ends as predicted by Chin.

SPIEGEL: But does a player want to deliberately lose the round of 16 match at the Football World Cup, and into the bargain against the world champions from Brazil, which could make him famous?

Hill: In Ghana making it into the last 16 was already considered a huge success. After the victories against the Czech Republic and the United States, they were celebrated as heroes -- and after their defeat by Brazil too. Besides, there had been a huge argument within the Ghanaian delegation a week before the start of the World Cup. It was about the payment of the players, the functionaries wanted to use the money paid by FIFA mainly for advancing football. But the players suspected the officials of wanting to put it into their own pockets. They wanted to be paid well and were in quite a bad mood. However, I want to stress that not all the Ghana players were involved. Many were trying as hard as they could to win the match.

SPIEGEL: Ghanaian football is known for its corruption scandals, games in the Ghanaian premier league are fixed, last year the club of football hero Abédi Pele made it into the first league, they needed to win by a large margin and, somehow, the match ended 31:0. But how strong is the influence of Asian manipulators on games in Europe?

Hill: The Asians are only just discovering how excellently manipulation works here too. They still lack direct access in Europe. Europeans take care of that because they know the football players who are susceptible. They know who is corrupt and pass on their knowledge to the Asians.

SPIEGEL: Have you informed the world football association FIFA of your findings?

Hill: I visited Joseph Blatter in Zürich and told him that an Asian fixer had told me the outcomes of matches before they were played in the 2006 World Cup. He did not believe this to be true. If it had happened, he said, then it had not affected the overall outcome. But if it were true “then all the work done by FIFA during the past 30 years was in vain. In that case, we have failed.”

SPIEGEL: Could one say that the betting ring leader Ante Sapina, who bribed the referee Robert Hoyzer in the most well-known German case to date, is more a sort of pre-industrial gambler?

Hill: If he had joined forces with the Asians no one would ever have got onto him. Hoyzer and the Sapina brothers were really primitive in their methods.

Interview conducted by Christoph Biermann and Michael Wulzinger.

Editor's Note: Due to an error in the editing process, an earlier version of this interview contained inaccuracies. We apologize for any misunderstanding.

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