Asian football has been hit with match-fixing scandals aplenty over the last decade. On 23 May, yet another scandal made the news. Three things made this scandal different: first, it involved one of Asia’s top clubs; second, the amounts of money changing hand were shockingly low for an attempt to effect a match’s outcome; and third, it received very little press coverage.
The top club in question were Korean champions Jeonbuk Motors, who on the day of the scandal were about to take on Melbourne Victory for a place in the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League. One of Jeonbuk’s scouts was indicted and, along with two referees, was charged with fixing matches back in 2013.
The referees in question had previously been convicted of fixing Gyeongnam FC’s matches during the same season, leading to convictions for those involved, fines, and point deductions for Gyeongnam. At that time, Gyeongnam had been struggling and were on the ropes financially, with the owner wanting to sell up. Jeonbuk, on the other hand, finished third that season, and won the title in the following two seasons. They are owned by the Hyundai Motors group, an absolute behemoth of a company, and have the highest wage bill in the league.
Given their relative financial security and their ability to outspend anyone in the league when it comes to strengthening their squad, Jeonbuk would probably seem like one of the least likely of teams to be involved in match-fixing.
Perhaps even more surprising were the amounts allegedly paid to referees in order to help fix games. The amount received by the referees was less than USD$1,000 a match. Even with the K-League’s incredibly low attendances, a supporter whip-round could easily manage this much cash per game, not to mention the scores of minor criminal gangs around the world that look to profit from illegal gambling. If matches can be fixed at a club owned by one of the world’s largest companies, for such a low price, then how can supporters be sure that any game is genuine and hasn’t been fixed?
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Public apathy towards the K-League, and the recurrence of such match-fixing scandals, may suggest why this particular one has barely made the headlines, even within Korea. It also suggests that the problem won’t be fixed in the future.
In 2011, a major match-fixing scandal involving over 50 players hit the K-League. At the time, strong punishments, combined with the stigma of being known as a match-fixer, led some of those involved to commit suicide. Their deaths, it would be thought, should surely be enough for anyone considering match-fixing to think twice. However, it seems as though that isn’t the case, given that people are willing to consider fixing matches for less than a thousand dollars a match, hardly life changing money.
While punishments for those directly involved have been severe, little thought has been given to the system that allows such events to take place. Even before the 2011 scandal, Korean footballing legend Cha Bum-kun revealed the corruption involved in Korean football to the public, but rather than his whistleblowing leading to a thorough investigation, it led to Cha being banned himself for “dishonouring” Korean football.
Like many real disasters in Korea such as department store collapses and ferry sinkings (both far more serious issues than match fixing – football is only a game after all), the 2011 scandal might have been avoided ahead of time if the authorities involved in regulation had been more proactive. Since 2011, it seems as though the KFA hasn’t learned from its past mistakes.
Even after the scandals with Gyeongnam in 2013, league officials claimed that the incident was an exception to an otherwise clean league and resisted demands that the investigation be expanded to include other clubs and officials. The KFA is very quick to hand down lifetime bans to players and officials involved in match-fixing, but it appears completely unwilling to take responsibility for its role in creating situations where match-fixing can repeatedly take place without proper investigation. In its attempt to save face by trying to sweep past incidents under the rug, the people running Korean football may have done the Korean game irreparable damage.
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Jeonbuk claim that the scout involved in match fixing didn’t do so under the club’s orders. This may well be true – Jeonbuk had very little to gain from match fixing in the 2013 season, finishing miles behind the top two but comfortably in the top four. Pohang won the league that season, leapfrogging second-placed Ulsan after a dramatic 90-fifth minute winner when the two teams played each other in the final game of the season. Indeed, several of Pohang and Ulsan’s matches against Jeonbuk were among the games allegedly fixed. The bad-press for Hyundai from being associated with match-fixing would certainly be greater than any potential gain.
What is less likely is that the scout was acting alone. It is well-known that gambling syndicates exist and that they are willing to try to fix matches in any league no matter where. It is up to the authorities to stop this from happening. To do so requires looking more deeply at the processes involved in match-fixing, rather than just focusing on the 22 players and three officials on the football pitch.
The small amount of cash received for match-fixing suggests that the problem of match-fixing could be prevented by changes in how the game is run in Korea. It is hardly the case of a domestic sporting body being powerless in the face of a multi-billion dollar crime-syndicate. In short, the blame for the recent match fixing scandal can be laid on one door: that of the Korean game’s governing bodies.
Gambling is effectively illegal in Korea; only one casino in the whole country admits Korean citizens. However, that doesn’t stop people in other countries from gambling on the K-League. The KFA need to wise up to this fact and look at the efforts that other countries make to try to prevent match-fixing if the K-League is to have any chance of regaining credibility.
Korea wasn’t the only Asian country to suffer from match fixing scandals in 2013. A massive scandal erupted in China, leading to the Chinese FA banning over 50 players for match fixing, with some of the officials involved also receiving jail time. It was even claimed that players could gain a spot on the Chinese national team for the right price.
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Back in 2001, match fixing in China was even more blatant, with teams winning by implausibly large margins in several matches in order to win promotion on goal-difference. Since the last match fixing scandal in China, many clubs such as Jiangsu Suning have gone on huge spending-sprees to bring in world-class players, but as shown by Jeonbuk’s case, match-fixing often involves the weakest link: signing mega-stars on seven-or-eight figure salaries won’t prevent match fixing when somebody is willing to fix a game for less than four figures.
While there is currently no evidence that any matches in China or Korea have been fixed since 2013, the factors that make match fixing possible still exist. As such scandals take time before the truth is known, it is quite plausible that two years from now, people will be reading an article about how the games played last weekend, or those played next weekend, were fixed.
Fans like to complain about strange refereeing decisions or player mistakes, but anyone who watches both Asian and European football will come to the conclusion that such bizarre decisions or mistakes are more frequent in Asia than they are in Europe (that’s not to say that European football is immune from match-fixing – far from it).
These errors and decisions may be down to the lack of quality of the football in question, but once the seed of doubt is planted in fans’ minds, every one of these incidents will start to feel like an example of match fixing. When a scandal hits a league once it is faithfully assumed that the league will deal with the problem and it won’t happen again. When a scandal happens repeatedly – as it has in Korea – such faith disappears, and getting it back is incredibly difficult..
By Steve Price. Follow @kleaguefootball