Premier League football clubs Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have been accused of “sanitising” 1xBet, one of the world’s most controversial betting operators.

The allegations come following a Sunday Times investigation that lays clear the nature of the relationship between the clubs and 1xBet, as well as the firm’s illicit operations.

Prominent Premier League players such as Roberto Firmino, Willian and Olivier Giroud have sponsorship deals with the Russian operator, despite its websites being blacklisted by regulators in numerous countries.

One such country is Kenya, which suspended the firm’s license for contributing to the country’s gambling epidemic. Tottenham announced last August that it had partnered with 1xBet in Africa, and the operator has been promoting gambling using images of the club’s players, including England captain Harry Kane.

Liverpool and Chelsea both announced 1xBet as their official betting partner last month, with both clubs signing multi-year deals with the firm. The gambling operator has also partnered with Spanish club Barcelona.

Matt Zarb-Cousin, a spokesman for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, said that “football clubs are being used to sanitise gambling brands. They should consider the damage that is being caused to their own reputations.”

The Times’ investigation revealed 1xBet is linked to a number of illicit operations, including promoting a casino in which gamblers are enticed by topless croupiers. The firm was also found to have promoted betting on children’s sports, advertised on illegal football streaming websites, and accepted bets on cockfighitng in certain countries. Live streams of cockfights were promoted on websites featuring the logos of the three Premier League clubs.

Peter Szuszko, chief executive of intellectual property firm White Bullet Solutions, said that 1XBet “are helping to fund sites which in many cases are run by criminal gangs.” Szuszko added that the operator is “on the radar” of law enforcement agencies.

1xBet’s UK website has been taken down following the investigation and the UK Gambing Commission has announced that it has launched an investigation. The gambling firm laid blame on its marketing partners, commenting: “If any of these third-party networks or partners are found to advertise the 1xBet brand on prohibited sites or sites which break the law, 1xBet shall investigate immediately.”

When asked to comment by the Times, Tottenham Hotspur stated that 1xBet had assured the club that it works to protect people from gambling addiction, while Liverpool said that restrictions on its partnership deals ensured all marketing content was appropriate. Chelsea did not respond to the Times’ request for comment.

The relationships between football clubs and gambling brands have come under increased scrutiny in recent months. Wayne Rooney was recently criticised for agreeing to wear the number 32 shirt when he moves to Derby County in January 2020. Derby are sponsored by gambling firm 32Red, which helped finance the move. Everton’s shirt sponsor, SportPesa, is another operator which has been accused of fuelling problem gambling in Kenya.

Ten out of the 20 Premier League clubs will have gambling brand logos on their shirts for the 2019-20 season, with the value of the combined deals totalling £69m. Critics have accused clubs of normalising and promoting gambling, particularly among young fans.