Norfolk Police Chief Constable Simon Bailey (Photo: PA)
Police investigating the soccer sex abuse scandal say children as young as four may have been targeted.
They have now identified 429 victims, aged between four and 20, and 155 potential suspects.
The number of football clubs involved has reached 148.
Operation Hydrant, which was set up by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) to oversee investigations of “non-recent” child sex abuse, is co-ordinating the probe.
The spotlight has recently fallen on abuse in football after a number of former players, including ex England striker Paul Stewart, came forward to tell their stories.
Video thumbnail, Former footballer reveals potential scale of sex abuse claims
In a statement on the NPCC website, Chief Constable Simon Bailey said: “Allegations received by police forces across the country are being swiftly acted upon.
“We continue to urge anyone who may have been a victim of child sexual abuse to report it by dialling 101, or contacting the dedicated NSPCC helpline, regardless of how long ago the abuse may have taken place.
“We will listen and treat all reports sensitively and seriously. Anyone with any information regarding child sexual abuse is also urged to come forward.”
He said it was important that anybody with information gets in touch with the police in order to ensure there are no current safeguarding risks but acknowledged that the “higher than usual” number of calls is causing delays in doing follow-up interviews.
Of the football victims so far identified, all but 2% are male.
The NPCC confirmed other sports have also been implicted.
The figures show approximate increases of more than 50% on the last update from the NPCC on December 9, when there were 98 clubs implicated, 83 suspects and 639 referrals. The data covers all tiers of football.
Norfolk’s Chief Constable Mr Bailey, the NPCC lead on child abuse, said: “The numbers keep growing.
“We are dealing with some of the most complex investigations you can imagine.
“We are dealing with incredibly sensitive matters, sometimes in very high profile cases and of course all those factors create a huge challenge for the service.”
Separate figures show the number of historical child abuse suspects across all walks of life stands at 3,469, more than double the figure of 18 months earlier.
Mr Bailey urged victims of child sexual abuse to report it by dialling 101 or contacting the dedicated NSPCC helpline for those abused in football, “regardless of how long ago the abuse may have taken place”.
The update from Operation Hydrant came a day after four former players who were abused by coaches as youngsters – Ian Ackley, Derek Bell, Paul Stewart and David White – met Football Association chairman Greg Clarke and the governing body’s head of equality and safeguarding Sue Ravenlaw at Wembley.
On Twitter, former Manchester City favourite White wrote that he believed the FA was now “showing a true duty of care to victims and to the current and future safeguarding of kids”.
Keith Best, the chief executive of SurvivorsUK, the country’s biggest male rape and sexual abuse charity, has called on the FA and individual clubs to make counselling available to all who need it, as soon as possible.
He said: “Some (victims) will have been able to deal with this in their own way and may not need intensive help.
Barry Bennell was jailed in 1998
“(But) for others they are still affected years after the event – their confidence in forming relationships, questions about their sexuality, post-traumatic stress disorder and problems at work and home can all manifest themselves without appropriate counselling and emotional support.
“The least that the clubs can now do is to make arrangements with specialist organisations to provide that counselling and support to those who will find if helpful.
“This is an investment not only in those to whom a duty of care was owed but also in society.
"The cost of a failure to react positively to the individuals and to society as a whole is enormous, disproportionately more than a course of therapy.”