Asian football emerging from the gloom

Once the global hub of football’s most dodgy practice, are the dark days of Southeast Asian match-fixing being tackled?

Chinese efforts to tackle match-fixing involved harsh fines and prison terms for guilty officials and players [GETTY]
Chinese efforts to tackle match-fixing involved harsh fines and prison terms for guilty officials and players [GETTY]

The growing interaction of Asia with the rest of the football world is overwhelmingly a good thing as the giant continent brings billions of fans, thousands of gifted players and growing economic might to the global table.

It’s not a complete positive however. There’s also the fact Asia has something of a reputation when it comes to match-fixing.

While leading football nations such as Germany and Italy have had their own problems, the south-eastern region of Asia is generally recognised as the continental and perhaps global hub of the dodgy practice. But even South Korea, home to Asia’s oldest professional league and one of its strongest, has had problems.

The 2011 match-fixing scandal saw almost 60 players and coaches, past and present, indicted on charges of rigging games. With suicides and government threats of a league shutdown if the situation was not placed under control, it was a dark time.

The issue is still being dealt with. Earlier in August, the Korea FA, under pressure from fans and media, intervened to stop a plan from the K-league to reduce the punishment handed out to a number of players.

“We need to be strict otherwise the players who have potential to commit these crimes don’t take it seriously,” Park Yong-soo, the head of the KFA’s International department, told Al Jazeera.

“The statutes that we have for punishing players have to be stricter.”

China went down the punitive route. The Middle Kingdom had a chronic corruption problem that almost destroyed the Chinese Super League. Eventually, the government stepped in with an iron boot and sent high-level federation officials and others involved in the game to prison for years at a time.

The policy seems to have worked. A perception that the league is cleaning itself up has resulted the return of fans as well as investment from the corporate sector. The tournament is experienced an exciting revival.

As well as the punitive measures however, there has to be some focus on prevention. “The most important policy is the education program,” said Park.

“In co-operation with the legal ministry, we hold seminars and lectures to foster awareness and understanding among young players and coaches as well as experienced professional players.”

The K-League has also implemented operational reforms with the objective of introducing higher standards of professionalism and ensuring that, with dead rubbers a fertile environment for corruption, is important and meaningful as possible. After 30 years, promotion and relegation have finally been introduced, the number of teams in the top league will be reduced to 12, the league has been rebranded and stricter operational criteria implemented.  

It’s too soon to say for sure but initial results have been encouraging.

Sad reality

But like every other nation, Korea will forever have to remain vigilant.

“Match fixing is a sad reality,’ said Steve Darby, an English coach with extensive experience in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.

“When there is gambling in life there will be match fixing.” Darby emphasises that it is up to clubs to pay players on time, arguing that the failure to do so is the major factor that tempts players to the dark side in south-east Asia.

He also agrees with the Korean viewpoint that education is the best prevention.

“The key area is the ethos and culture that the young player is brought up in. If the correct values are both overtly and covertly instilled into players then they may never enter into the areas that may lose them their careers and lifestyle.”

At its worst however, match-fixing is not only dangerous to the integrity of the game but to players and their loved ones. “A player may be personally threatened or family members threatened if they do not assist in making a certain result happen,” said Darby.

I used to believe that it was black or white. You were a cheat or not. I learnt from listening to players that it is not so simple

Steve Darby, Singapore-based football coach

“I used to believe that it was black or white. You were a cheat or not. I learnt from listening to players that it is not so simple.”

“A Chinese-Malay player in a Malaysian team told me that previously he had been telephoned to arrange a fix. He refused. He was offered three months salary. He refused again. He was then asked to confirm that his younger sister attended a certain school. He accepted.”

Darby himself has received threats during his time in Singapore for refusing to fix games.

Ultimately, though, while sending players and officials to prison makes for good headlines, more attention and effort should be made to capturing the criminals behind it all. That is the hard part.

“The important lesson is that we need stronger cooperation,” said Park.  

“The only solution is through FIFA which has a connection with Interpol and other police forces. Even when the Korea FA is working with the Korean police, we are limited because we are acting only internally.

“This problem can’t be solved alone, we have to co-operate with China, Japan and South-east Asia and elsewhere. It is an international problem.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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