Fearful K League Still Running From Decades-Long Corruption

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No one found it shocking or even seemed bothered. Not many eyebrows were raised when reports in October suggested that South Korean second division side Gyeongnam FC have bribed at least four referees in 2013 and 2014 to fix matches to avoid relegation. Gyeongnam managed to survive in the top flight by a whisker in 2013, but were eventually relegated in the following season despite their then president Ahn Jong-bok’s persistent effort to bribe the club’s way to another season in the K League Classic.

Ahn and three referees have since been found guilty. The ruling prompted K League commissioner Kwon Oh-gap to issue a public apology. Gyeongnam, whose board and president have already been changed by the time Ahn was arrested, were docked 10 points for the upcoming 2016 season.

Besides that, however, the K League has done little else to ensure that it will go above and beyond to eradicate corruption. Instead of expanding the investigation onto more clubs and referees, the league went no further than just hitting Ahn and the four referees with a lifetime ban from football activities in Korea. Then, a rather bizarre statement followed; “even the public prosecutors who investigated Ahn were impressed with our meticulous system to monitor the referees.” The recent match-fixing scandal involving Gyeongnam was a mere exception and the fans can be rest assured that the game in Korea is indeed clean, a league official said.

To Lee Young-pyo, a retired South Korean leftback who now works as a football commentator for TV network KBS, the K League’s passive-aggressive approach in dealing with corruption was baffling.

“Maybe some people think letting the recent [Gyeongnam] scandal pass by is the best way to protect the K League as the league is already facing many other difficulties,” Lee wrote on his Facebook page in Korean last month. “What the K League needs now, more than ever, is to recover the faith of the fans, which has been fading for 30 years now, instead of salvaging the little faith that it is now left with. To those who say that 99% of the K League referees are clean, I’d like to say that even 99% is not 100%. A sport with even 1% of predetermined influence can no longer serve its true purpose.”

Former Gyeongnam FC president Ahn Jong-bok

Former Gyeongnam FC president Ahn Jong-bok has been found guilty of bribery. Photo credit: Joongang

As Lee eloquently explained, the real problem is that the signs of corruption in the K League have existed for decades, dating back to as early as the 1990s, only for the league officials to sweep those suggestions under the rug each time. In 1998, then national team manager Cha Bum-kun, after getting sacked following a 5-0 loss to Netherlands at the World Cup, told the Korean media that he witnessed matches being fixed in the K League while he was managing Ulsan Hyundai for three seasons in the early 90s. The Korea Football Association responded with a ban on Cha from all football activities in the country for five years. The KFA hit back at Cha, saying that he has created an agenda to dishonour Korean football out of his anger after finding himself on the receiving end of public scrutiny for Korea’s poor showing at the World Cup in France.

In 2003, several media outlets claimed that Seongnam, then perennial contenders in the K League, bribed opposing players to win the title in the previous year but those reports were dismissed without an investigation ever taking place. In 2008, players from Seoul Pabal FC, then a club in Korea’s third-tier (now fourth) K3 League, testified that they were paid $100,000 for every loss by illegal gamblers, which resulted in the league disbanding their club altogether. A year later, four players and five club officials in the second-tier (now third) National League were arrested for agreeing to receive payments to throw away matches.

Then, the real storm hit the K League in 2011. This time, the scandal involved over 50 players who were bribed by gambling brokers to lose matches in Korea’s top flight. Most of those players were banned from football, with some getting booted out permanently, and three players and a manager involved in the police investigation were found dead after allegedly committing suicide. Some of the banned players even included those who represented Korea internationally, namely Choi Sung-kuk, once a promising forward dubbed as the “Korean Maradona” for his mercurial skills on the ball. However, no one at the management level of the clubs or the league was punished.

Perhaps the events leading up to the 2011 scandal that swept across the K League and left a permanent scar on the image of Korea’s domestic football have convinced those who call the shots to remain reluctant in looking into more possible corruption cases. Surely, more bad publicity will further taint the image of the K League, which has already been damaged on several occasions in the past.

Choi Sung-Kuk received lifetime football ban for match-fixing

Choi Sung-Kuk received lifetime football ban for match-fixing. Photo credit: Getty

Despite being the oldest professional football league in Asia with more continental honours (10 AFC Champions League titles) than any other leagues in the region, the K League is still fighting for relevance in its own country. In 2015, only three of the 12 clubs in the K League Classic averaged an attendance of over 10,000 per match and six clubs failed to even reach the 5,000-mark. Although KBS, a terrestrial TV network, aired more matches than usual last season, the league still only collects $5 million a year through TV deals, a paltry compared to other leagues even in Asia. Players of Incheon United and Gwangju FC, clubs owned by financially strained city governments, weren’t paid on time. As the popularity of the league is showing no signs of improvement, even the corporate-owned clubs with history of spending money to build some of the strongest squads in Asian club football are now reducing their budgets. As a result, the exodus of the country’s biggest star footballers to neighboring countries, especially China, for more money and bigger fan support has become an overwhelming trend.

Those disturbing issues have led to the widely agreed notion amongst those involved in Korean football that the K League simply cannot afford another PR disaster. However, whether distancing itself from existing problems is the most suitable way to protect the league is questionable to say the least. That is why Lee, a former K League player who went on to play the best part of his career at PSV Eindhoven and Tottenham Hotspur, took it to social media to call on the K League to investigate all clubs and referees to show the public that efforts are being made to protect the integrity of the game.

“There is a disconnect, a lack of faith between Korean football fans and the K League,” said Lee, pointing to the contrasting popularity of the national team and European football compared to the domestic game in Korea. “The only way to end this period of deprived faith is for the K League to show its willingness to fight against corruption before the eyes of all football fans by voluntarily stepping up to conduct an expanded investigation that’s subject to all referees and clubs.”

Soon after Lee’s strong words, the K League launched the rather grandiosely named Clean Football Association, an anti-corruption body that will work to prevent and eradicate corruption within Korean football. Specific plans of the CFA have not been announced yet, but Lee stressed that the K League must turn such an effort into a starting point of an essential housekeeping work rather than using it as yet another cover-up to hide its dirty laundry.

“These efforts will have to continue until the currently existing doubts of the fans eventually turn into strong faith,” Lee said. “The K League has done many great things in recent years, such as reaching a new TV deal with KBS to raise publicity and reviving the reserves league to develop young players, but unless the faith of the fans is completely restored, even the league’s best work will only return as a mere empty echo.”