Friday, February 8, 2013
Learning from match-fixing in Asia
Some things just seem to go hand-in-hand in football. Stereotypically, England do direct, Italy do defensive and Brazil do samba. And Asia? That would be Premier League shirt-buying and international match-fixing. Europol, investigating a massive corruption scandal in the beautiful game, could do worse than get on the phone or a plane to some Eastern capitals and provide some advice on dos and don'ts.
The perception may be that rigging results is de rigueur in Asia, but just like police in a dodgy neighbourhood, local authorities have an awful lot of experience in trying to deal with it.
Head-in-the-sand, blind eyes, positive incentives, draconian punishments, persuasion and education are just some of the methods that have been tried. Some have worked - or seemed to, as many now realise, you can never be completely certain and no country can claim with 100% confidence to be completely clean - while others have not.
What is clear in Asia now is an understanding that the issue is not black and white, and the division between the good guys and the bad guys is as murky as a winter Beijing sky. Coaches such as Steve Darby, an Englishman well-travelled and versed in South-East Asia, tells of death threats when refusing to fix a game and his players having family threatened. Ex-Australia international Craig Foster tells of team-mates during his time in Singapore and Malaysia having legs broken for standing up to the fixers.
For sure, there are those that do it for good old greed and/or desperation. It's hard to combat one of the seven deadly sins but paying players on time certainly helps with the latter. Some clubs in South-East Asia, a region with 'usual suspect' status whenever a match-fixing scandal breaks internationally, have been notoriously culpable of this. Delayed payments create fertile ground for dodgy characters, often never very far away from football, to sow seeds of destruction. Some players, especially those outside the mega-money range and who rely on their monthly pay packet, can be tempted. And once they are 'in', getting out is not always easy.
That was not an issue in South Korea, which had a major outbreak in 2011. The starting point there seemed to be K-League Cup games, a relatively unimportant and almost ignored tournament, that gave fringe players, who were not exactly raking it in, a chance to play and gave fixers operating on behalf of shadowy Chinese and Korean gangs a chance to prey. The scandal was a shock all over Asia as the K-League is the continent's oldest professional league and one of the best. If it was also shocking just how many players and coaches - over 60 - were indicted, it was sadder that others knew but did nothing.
Sometimes cultural traits in a country make it difficult to do anything. Korea is not the only Asian country where citizens respect and revere their elders but it is ingrained deeper than almost anywhere else. With younger players deferring to their 'older brothers' in many aspects, refusing an offer to throw a game becomes that little bit tougher. Harder still is dealing with the prospect of blowing the whistle on an established habit among senior members of the team. There were few options for those wanting to spill the beans. There was no system in place for the footballers to feel comfortable about reporting or discussing what was going on.
There is now and, as well as bans and sometimes custodial sentences, the KFA has been big on educating players and coaches about how match-fixing works and how to avoid getting sucked in. Monthly classes are held. Since the scandal, the K-League has gone through significant change. The League Cup has gone, promotion and relegation has been introduced and there is a Scottish style split system - all with the aim of having less meaningless matches.
The meaningless match is to be avoided as much as possible and not just for the sake of drama. Such situations make it easier for the gangs to recruit casual helpers and persuade them it is not a big deal, helped by the relative lack of media attention and public scrutiny. In October, Singapore revealed a plan to fine the teams which finish in the bottom two of the S-League in 2013 in an attempt to encourage motivation to keep going to the end. "This gives clubs something to fight for till the last game and to finish as high up as possible," said S-League CEO Lim Chin. Fans don't like it and few think it will work.
Talking to China would reveal how authorities, both of the football and legal variety, can work together. Years of chronic corruption had left the Chinese Super League looking distinctly less than super. A 2003 survey carried out by state television claimed that fans believed over half of league games to be fixed. Many turned their backs on the game and sponsors were not far behind.
The government was tired of seeing basically the two same articles appear in the international media over and over again - how a country with 1.3 billion can't find 11 players to challenge in Asia, never mind the world, and how corrupt the game was. The thinking was that sorting out the latter was a pre-requisite for doing something about the former.
So China got tough. Administrators, such as former FA president Nan Yong, were sentenced to ten years in prison in 2012. Referees, coaches and players were also handed prison time and punishments were well-publicised by local media. The message was simple. It seemed to be effective. There is a perception that Chinese football is clean, or at least becoming so. Sponsors returned, investors arrived and the future looks relatively bright, showing what is possible if governments, backed by law enforcement agencies and the media, take the problem seriously.
Malaysia is still dealing with the aftermath of a massive scandal in 1994 that saw over 100 players and coaches banned from the game. There are smaller outbreaks from time to time and in 2012, 18 youth players were banned. Suspicion is still high, as a corner that was fumbled into his own net by T-Team's goalkeeper in August 2012, demonstrated. Former West Ham United player Peter Butler, coaching from the sidelines, immediately substituted his No. 1, giving him a push as he left the pitch. The player was furious and subsequently cleared of any wrong-doing but the stench of match-fixing lingers longer. Malaysian football authorities have been working with other sports in the country to present a united front.
There's more, of course, with various episodes and experiences - some real, some imagined and some unknown. Asian betting syndicates may be at the root of a hefty proportion of match-fixing around the world but instead of pointing fingers, Europe should be opening ears. Asia has much to share about an international problem that requires international co-operation.