‘We’re close to resolving all matters’ -Jason Ferguson provides update on snooker match-fixing investigation
Phil Haigh Sunday 1 Jan 2023 1:21 pm
Snooker’s match-fixing investigation is close to an end, says WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson, who explains that lifetime bans for anyone found guilty are very unlikely.
Eight players are currently suspended from the World Snooker Tour due to allegations of ‘manipulating the outcome of matches for betting purposes’.
Chen Zifan was the latest to be suspended just before Christmas, joining Yan Bingtao, Liang Wenbo, Lu Ning, Li Hang, Zhao Jianbo, Bai Langning and Chang Bingyu in being barred from events.
The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association chairman explains that there is no limit in how long the players can be suspended for, but he is pushing for the investigation to be completed as rapidly as possible.
‘It’s progressing quickly, we were already quite a long way down the road before I had to take the decision to suspend a number of players. Watch this space, we’re moving it on as quickly as possible,’ Ferguson told Metro.co.uk.
‘There is no limit on time for suspensions, but there are limits in terms of fairness to the players themselves and to the sport. We want to move this on very, very quickly.
‘We’re pushing as hard as we can because this type of thing is very damaging and we have to prove to the public that it’s dealt with, that we can take swift action.’
Clearly Ferguson could not give details of specific cases, but did suggest that the players are not all being investigated for the same alleged offences.
‘As it says in the statements, the suspensions are an investigation into the manipulation of results,’ he said. ‘That isn’t to say that everyone who’s been suspended is guilty of match-fixing, that’s certainly not what it says.
‘We will thoroughly go through everything and I’m sure it will all come out in the public domain. I’ll get the result from the independent hearing and at that point we will publish.
‘When we started this, we made a number of initial suspensions, we weren’t expecting that things would go further, but you can never say never. Let’s just hope that we’re at the bottom of this, and I will say, if we’re not at the bottom of it, we’re very near. We’re close to resolving all matters.’
Former world champion Shaun Murphy called for any player found guilty of match-fixing to be banned from the sport for life.
‘I think anyone guilty of match-fixing, their existence in the snooker world should be over,’ the Magician told Eurosport. ‘And if any of those players are found guilty, I hope we never see them again.’
However, Ferguson says lifetime bans are pretty much untenable, so, although there will be heavy punishments for those found guilty, it will not be a ban for life.
‘Life time bans do not stand up in law, quite frankly,’ he said. ‘I get Shaun’s statement and I understand why he’s so passionate about it, because I feel very strongly about it as well, especially as a former player. Every ball you pot must mean something. But we do know from legal advice that lifetime bans do not stack up in court. It’s completely challengeable.
‘We have in our rules that players may receive up to a lifetime ban, if found guilty of match-fixing or manipulating results, but there has to be a range. If you take, for example, a player who’s a serial match-fixer and just keeps doing it, that’s at the high level. But if you’ve got some young kid with a gun to his head or a gun to their family’s head and they’ve crossed the line once, is that the same as a serial fixer? These are the things that any responsible tribunal will take into account.’
In better news for snooker, China announced earlier this week that quarantines for travellers are coming to an end in January as they relax their strict Covid restrictions.
There has not been a WST event in China since 2019, which has been a huge blow to the professional game, but Ferguson says this is a step in the right direction to returning.
However, he urges caution, and it looks like next season is the realistic target to get back to China for tournaments.
‘It’s really exciting,’ he said. ‘Obviously we’ve been keeping close tabs on travel and government policies for international sport, but it’s really exciting to see some movements, We’re aware there’s been some outbreaks so we can’t just rush straight in. But I can tell you that we’re in contact with all our promoters in China, the demand is there for the events. We’re thoroughly excited about coming back.
‘We still believe there will be government meetings in March that will outline international sport policies. That’s what we were told in our last correspondents and we believe that’s still the case. We’re not diving in, but we’re planning and dates will start to be put aside. It’s great, I’m looking forward to getting back there. It’s a huge market for us and I love working there. Of course we miss it. The players miss the events, the earning opportunities, the opening ceremonies, they feel like stars at these events.
‘Realistically we are looking at next season. We’ve been holding potential dates in the calendar, but realistically it’s a next season project. That’s probably summer, maybe the end of summer. We have to monitor the situations with the outbreaks, there’s lots of complications to it over and above just basic travel in and out of the country. Flights are hard to come by at the moment, not so many airlines going in and out, so we need to see some improvement there. But hopefully we’ve turned a corner and things can look more positive.’
On the possibility of China not returning to the snooker calendar next season, he said: ‘Of course we’re always looking at contingency planning. You can put temporary events on to plug gaps in dates, or you can plan ahead to put events on in new territories and we’re looking at both options.’
With eight Chinese players currently suspended from World Snooker Tour events, it is not ideal for the image of the sport in their home country, but Ferguson insists it will not hamper a return to China when it is possible.
‘It’s obviously big news in China, it’s hit the headlines but likewise there’s a respect for the way we’re dealing with it,’ he said. ‘It’s a concern, but I think the authorities there can see we’re a very responsible sport and that’s what will carry us through on this.’
It’s good news that the inquiry is progressing, and it is certainly a good move by Jason Ferguson to keep the press and the fans in the loop.
A possible return of the Chinese events next season is certainly positive. At the moment there is a surge in covid cases in China, but that was to be expected. Immunity is built through exposure to the viruses or microbes. Long periods of isolation – like lockdowns – weaken the immune system because it is not stimulated. Measures in China have been very stringent for a long time and therefore their population is now left more vulnerable, not just to covid but to all viral agents. It will take some months for the situation to return to “normal”.
Lewis was right when, in a recent comment, he pointed out that a life ban may not be “legally” possible.
I highlighted some of Jason’s quotes by giving two paragraphs a different background.
There are some interesting nuances in his choice of words in the first: the inquiry is about “manipulation of results” rather than “match fixing”. But isn’t that the same thing? And if not, where is the difference? Of course, all the suspended players are presumably innocent until proven guilty.
In the second I find it interesting that he emphasised the difference between a “serial match fixer” – Stephen Lee was one – and “some young kid with a gun to his head or a gun to their family’s head“. Maybe I’m wrong but his choice of words suggests to me that some of the young players might have been seriously threatened. If this is indeed the case, WPBSA will have to think about ways to better protect their players, particularly the young ones who are separated from their families. Another question is what can they do against individuals who would be total “strangers” to the official circuits of the sport sport but would engage in this type of blackmail.