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Asian Eye – Bahrain controversy is just the tip of a corruption iceberg

When you think of corruption in Asian football, the image that immediately comes to mind is that of shady individuals from former Soviet Republics clutching brown envelopes stuffed with cash. Western European football fans frequently recall 1995, when Dynamo Kyiv were booted out of UEFA competitions for attempting to buy off a Spanish referee with a couple of fur coats and a suitcase full of money.

Yet the former Soviet states have nothing, it would seem, on the rest of Asia, where match-fixing scandals are now a wildfire threatening to rage out of control. The latest embarrassing episode has seen FIFA step in to investigate a World Cup 2014 qualifying match between Bahrain and Indonesia (pictured).

Bahrain had gone into the match needing a nine-goal victory to stand a chance of qualifying for the next stage. They ended up winning 10-0. The match saw Bahrain awarded four penalties and the Indonesian goalkeeper was red-carded inside the first five minutes.

The head of the Asian Football Confederation, Alex Soosay, has come out with denials. He said: “I am confident none of our teams are involved in anything untoward. Bahrain were the better team both tactically and technically."

But the investigation goes on, and others, including even the Indonesian president do not share Soosay’s optimism. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian head of state, said he was “deeply concerned by what has happened."

Larger problem 

Regardless of the result of this FIFA probe, it only really succeeds in pointing to a much larger problem. Asian football has been enjoying steady growth since the latter part of last century. Japan’s J-League attracts some of the biggest crowds in world football, and Asian teams have succeeded in snapping up some big name players.

From Gary Lineker at Japan’s Grampus, to Paul Gascoigne at Gansu Tianma, Robbie Fowler in the Australian A-League and Nicolas Anelka’s recent transfer to Shanghai Shenhua, Asian football has demonstrated a clear desire to compete. In 2002, the eyes of the World turned to Asia, as South Korea and Japan hosted the first ever World Cup to be held on the continent.

But now, an ugly spectre threatens to derail all this progress. All across the continent, from its western edges, all the way to the very easternmost end of Asia, the menace of footballing corruption just will not go away. Aziz Yildirim, the chairman of Turkish giants Fenerbahce is now on trial on charges of fixing up to 19 league matches last season, with mobs of angry protesters camped outside the courthouse.

Chris Eaton, head of FIFA’s security unit says he has handed over evidence to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission which may prove that football officials in Malaysia have been involved in match-fixing.

In China, four referees, including ‘Golden Whistle’ Lu Jun, the only Chinese official to referee at the World Cup, have been thrown into jail after being found guilty of taking hefty bribes. Lu is a household name amongst Chinese football fans, but the courts showed him no mercy and handed him a sentence of five and a half years behind bars.

Match rigging

South Korea is the one Asian country that has been hit hardest by scandals of this sort. The 2011 K-League season has left the sport on its knees. Two players took their own lives as stories started to emerge last summer of how several K-League and League Cup matches had been rigged.

Players, it was revealed, had thrown matches in exchange for money from illegal betting groups. The South Korean authorities came down on offenders like a ton of bricks, throwing dozens of players into prison. Many were even sentenced to hard labour.

Ever since the K-League scandal, Korean sport has been threatening to implode, as players and coaches from other sports, like professional baseball and volleyball have admitted to taking money for throwing matches and spot-fixing. Korea’s K-League limps on, but the footballing authorities have abolished the League Cup in response to this tragic fiasco.

Japan’s J-League has also announced that it will take desperate measures to stop the violent Yakuza gangs from interfering with Japanese football. Authorities have set up an anti-corruption hotline in an attempt to keep the Yakuza away from football.

The J-League recently released a joint statement with players and referees in the country saying, “to protect the J-League from wrongdoing, it is necessary for us in football to continue cutting relations with anti-social forces, including crime syndicates.”

Rampant corruption

Experts are divided as to why football corruption is so rampant in Asian football. Betting on sports is illegal in many Asian countries, and few overseas betting agencies offer odds on the lesser Asian leagues.

But one theory is that the reason why Asian leagues are such attractive targets for corruption is precisely because they receive so little international attention. In strict Far Eastern societies, or devout Muslim nations, sports betting is exclusively an underground affair.

As this means even a modest bet involves the risk of jail time, it seems natural in such an environment, that players and officials will get approached by dubious individuals.

Although authorities in Asia have sent out the right message by cracking down hard on offenders, it seems almost impossible to stop the rot. Apologists will say that match-fixing scandals are hardly the preserve of Asian football – corruption is also rife in Africa, South America, and certainly Europe.

But if Asian countries cannot put an end to corruption scandals, football in this part of the world might never truly get the chance to bloom.

By Tim Alper

Tim Alper writes for South Korea’s leading football monthly magazine, Best Eleven

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