Higgins vows to fight match-fixing allegations

LONDON, May 3, 2010 (AFP) - The world's number one snooker player John Higgins has said he faces "the biggest match of my life" after being suspended over claims he agreed to take a huge bribe in return for fixing games.

Britain's News of the World on Sunday released a video showing what it said was Higgins and his manager Pat Mooney agreeing to lose frames in four matches later this year in return for a 300,000-euro (400,000-dollar) bribe.

The news sent shockwaves through the snooker world and cast a shadow over the World Championship final, which was starting in Sheffield, northern England, on the day the bribery allegations emerged.

But Higgins vehemently denied the claims and said: "Today is the start of the biggest match of my life.

(AFP FILES) John Higgins prepares to take a shot in the game against China's Ding Junhui in the snooker UK Championship in Telford, central England on December 13, 2009.

"It's not the World Championship that's at stake, it's something even more important, my reputation.

"I have never been involved in any form of snooker match-fixing."

Snooker's governing body suspended the three-time world champion from all its tournaments pending a probe in the wake of the claims, warning he could face a long ban.

Barry Hearn, chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA), said the world's top snooker player was in tears when he spoke to him on the phone about the claims.

He added Higgins's "whole career is in doubt" if the allegations are found to be true.

"Whilst we're not saying he's guilty of anything... these revelations are such there's a case he has to answer," Hearn told the BBC.

Snooker legend Steve Davis, who unexpectedly knocked 34-year-old Higgins out of the tournament's second round, described it as "the darkest day I've ever experienced in snooker".

"I think the integrity of the game has effectively evaporated overnight," Davis told BBC radio.

In a statement, Higgins insisted his conscience was "100 percent clear" and said he had been "very worried" about the discussion reported by the paper, which took place in Kiev, Ukraine.

"When it was suggested that I throw frames in return for large sums of money, I was really spooked. I just wanted to get out of the hotel and on to the plane home," he said.

"I didn't know if this was the Russian mafia or who we were dealing with. At that stage I felt the best course of action was just to play along with these guys and get out of Russia."

A secretly shot video posted on the News of the World's website appeared to show Higgins discussing losing frames and missing shots during a meeting with Mooney and an undercover reporter.

According to the newspaper, the millionaire three-time world champion boasted that "it's easy" to lose frames deliberately without being detected.

There is no suggestion that Higgins has thrown any matches up until now and the footage apparently indicates that any deal would apply to the "world series only."

The video ends with the men seeming to seal a deal, shaking hands and toasting each other with a shot of alcohol.

Mooney has resigned from the WPBSA's board in the wake of the report. He told Sky News television that the pair had faced around 24 hours of intimidation prior to the conversation in question.

"This has been a completely coerced and press-motivated moment," he added. But the paper said the pair had seemed relaxed when dealing with their undercover reporters.

"At no time whilst in Kiev did Mr Mooney or Mr Higgins show any signs of being under duress or in any way unhappy at being in our company," said a spokeswoman.

The journalist behind the story is Mazher Mahmood, an undercover reporter who has previously dressed up as a "fake sheikh" for stings involving sporting figures.

He recently targeted boxer Joe Calzaghe, the former world middleweight and light-heavyweight champion. The boxer apologised in March for occasionally using cocaine since retiring from the ring following a report in the newspaper.

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