SEOUL, South Korea — Asia’s reputation as a hotbed of soccer match-fixing and corruption is getting some overdue attention, as nations move to clean up the sport and position the region as a rival to Europe and South America in attracting players, fans and investment.
Last week Chinese courts handed out lengthy prison sentences to senior officials and players for accepting bribes, while South Korea is taking measures to improve the sport after the match-fixing scandal of 2011.
Earlier this week, soccer’s governing body, FIFA, extended the national bans imposed by South Korea’s K-League on 13 players into worldwide sanctions. Former national team player Kim Dong-hyun received a lifetime ban just a month after being arrested in Seoul for an attempted kidnapping at knifepoint.
Kim is the highest-profile of the 46 players in South Korea, past and present, charged with corruption. Authorities are continuing a comprehensive education program to prevent the events of last year being repeated.
“It’s a continuous task and we don’t have to advertise our efforts,” Lee Kap-jin, a former Korea Football Association vice president and head of the KFA’s misconduct committee, told The Associated Press. “We are here to help players and coaches deal with these situations should they arise in the future.”
That need was borne home in April, when K-league player Lee Kyung-hwan committed suicide after being banned for corruption. Lee was the third confirmed person in the country to take his life after the scandal became known.
“We focus on using every opportunity to educate everyone in soccer about match-fixing. We have an ongoing training program to teach players about moral and ethical problems and coaches about providing leadership,” said Lee.
After years of bribery scandals in the Chinese Super League, the Chinese government cracked down in 2010 and arrested a number of senior administrators, referees and players.
Last week, former Chinese Football Association (CFA) leader Nan Yong and his predecessor, Xie Yalong, were sentenced to 10 1/2 years in prison after being found guilty of accepting bribes. Former national team players and high-profile referees also received lengthy jail sentences.
Steve Darby, an English coach with extensive experience in Asia, believes that strict deterrents are necessary.
“The Chinese are taking the problem seriously and showing that sanctions such as prison will be used to clean up the game,” Darby said. “It has to be the right way to show leadership. Prison is a deterrent to many of the middle men. … The key is to get the ring leaders.”
The CFA also has also offered incentives to the public to report wrongdoing and has promised to work with international organizations to fight the problem. China, South Korea and Japan also have pledged to work together.
Chinese soccer’s myriad scandals over the years have damaged the reputation of the domestic game and driven supporters and sponsors away.
After 2010’s crackdown, fans and businesses began to return encouraged by significant investment in the Chinese Super League from companies and rich individuals and, now, some genuine stars.
The increasing sums flowing into domestic clubs had enabled some big-name arrivals. In December, Shanghai Shenhua signed Nicolas Anelka, and this week announced an in-principal agreement to sign his former Chelsea teammate, striker Didier Drogba. Guangzhou Evergrande has hired 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi and made Argentine playmaker Dario Conca one of the world’s highest-paid players.
The scandal in South Korea started a reform of how the K-League, the oldest professional league in Asia, is operated. The 2012 season is the first to involve relegation and by 2014, 16 teams in the top flight will be reduced to 12. Teams have been given much stricter operating guidelines.
While progress seems to have been made in the northern reaches of Asia, recent episodes in southeast Asia show corruption is far from being eradicated.
In May, four people, including a referee and players, were arrested in Singapore for suspected match-fixing. In February, 18 players in Malaysia were suspended for between two and five years on charges of match-fixing.
Darby, who has worked in Malaysia and Singapore, wants the entire region to follow the lead of China and South Korea.
“Fixing is returning in a big way to Southeast Asia, and there are so many rumors about who is involved that is not good for the game even if it is not true,” Darby said. “It is better to take the problem out of the hands of associations. They should support the police with realistic bans for people involved. The problem is too big for associations to solve.”