South Korea’s ongoing battle against match-fixing

It was a plan as clever and successful as Harry Kane taking England’s set-pieces. In May 2012, former South Korea international Kim Dong-hyun was broke and desperate. He enlisted the help of Yoon Chan-so, an ex-pitcher for baseball team Seoul LG Twins and also down on his luck. The plot was hatched.

The pair stole an SUV in the swanky southern Seoul area of Gangnam to tail a swankier BMW. The masked former footballer took the car at knife-point with the owner forced into the passenger seat. She managed to escape at traffic lights, hail a taxi and give chase, all the while reporting her location to the police. The boys in blue soon arrived and caught the hapless former athletes who were, by then, on foot.

Kim’s money issues arose when he was banned for life from playing football owing to his role in a massive match-fixing scandal that came to light in 2011. The ex-striker, who is still just 32, had been a main mover, recruiting younger players to do the bidding of Chinese and Korean gangs. The other high-profile star of those found guilty was Choi Sung-kuk. The photographs of the diminutive winger, once known as the ‘Little Maradona’ who came close to joining Sheffield United, turning up for work the following year as a hospital receptionist were poignant.

As sad as it was, there was much worse. Two killed themselves as the scandal unfolded, dominating the sports media for weeks. One was Jung Jong-kwan, a former Jeonbuk midfield player, who wrote of his shame in what seemed to be a suicide note found by his body in May 2011. Since the scandal broke, Jung had been working closely with league officials who were devastated at his death. Five months later, Lee Soo-cheol, who had been head coach of K-League team Sangju Sangmu, was found dead in another apparent suicide. Lee had been indicted of blackmailing the parents of a player who was involved in match-fixing.

It was a mess. Few could believe what was unfolding. At first fans refused to do so, criticising journalists for reporting what was going on. As time passed, it became apparent that this was something serious. Players that had initially issued denials started to spill the beans. Soon the government threatened to cancel the K-League, the oldest professional league in Asia, if something wasn’t done.

In the end, over 50 players and coaches, past and present, were found guilty of rigging results. Authorities got busy. Players were banned for years or life. Law enforcement agencies were involved too.

The Korea Football Association knew that, as well as tough punishments, there was a need to educate. In the past there had been complacency, ignorance and naivety. In the future, there could be no such excuses. Young players and coaches were sent to an institution near the central city of Daejeon. International observers were impressed with the program and there has been continued efforts to monitor and investigate.

So any new hints of trouble are taken seriously and when it involves the best team in the country, very seriously indeed.

Jeonbuk Motors have been dominant in South Korea in recent years. A first league title came in 2009, and this season should see a third championship in succession. Throw in more appearances in the Asian Champions League than any other team and an upcoming quarter-final in the tournament, Jeonbuk are one of the biggest teams on the world’s biggest continent. They are also currently under investigation for bribing referees.

In 2015, the former CEO of Gyeongnam FC Ahn Jung-buk, a well-known football figure, was found guilty of bribing referees in order to help his team avoid relegation. It didn’t work.

One of those referees found guilty claimed in May that he had also received money (not much — about $800) from a scout who worked for Jeonbuk. This was to fix matches in 2013, the one season since 2012 when the team did not win the title. The club says that the scout was working on his own initiative and without Jeonbuk’s knowledge.

Head coach Choi Kang-hee has been in charge since 2005. His 12 years in Jeonju were punctuated by an 18-month spell with the national team from 2012 to 2013 (he didn’t want to take the job but the KFA took him drinking and drinking and drinking until he said yes).

So Choi wasn’t in charge at the time of the said crimes but said in June he will take responsibility if guilt is established. That would probably mean resignation but the club’s general manager Lee Chul-geun said that he is the one who should go instead of Choi. Regardless, punishment is likely.

Gyeongnam, now in the second tier, were given a ten-point deduction. The same sanction would see Jeonbuk move to second, just two points off the pace and still favourites to win the title.

For fans, this kind of thing is troubling. Since the original football scandal, there have been issues with other codes too –baseball, basketball and volleyball.

This does not necessarily mean that Korea’s sports scene is any dodgier than others. After 2011, the country is more aggressive and pro-active at investigating sport corruption than than most — in Asia at least. The first step to dealing with a problem is to acknowledge that there is one in the first place. Many do not.

That may be a small consolation for Jeonbuk fans but short-term pain for them may help to provide long-term gain for Korean football, and sport, in general.

South Korea’s ongoing battle against match-fixing
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