South Korean soccer league in crisis amid match-fixing scandal

In a bid to weed out corruption in Korea's professional soccer league, authorities have announced that players have until June 13 to come forward with details of match-fixing.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Korea' Park Chu-young (l.) fights for the ball with Serbia's Aleksandar Kolarov to score the first goal as Serbia's goalkeeper Bojan Saranov (r.) watches during their friendly soccer match at the World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, on June 3. South Korea's professional soccer league has fallen into crisis of a match-fixing scandal.

It had enjoyed a near squeaky-clean reputation. South Korea's top professional soccer division's biggest challenge was its failure to convince more of the soccer loving South Korean paying public that Korean's professional teams were up to par with international clubs and that they should move away from their TVs in favor of buying a ticket for a professional game.

That seems minor now after the K-League was plunged into the murky depths of a match-fixing scandal.

Five professional players and two suspected brokers were arrested in connection with the unraveling rigging allegations. They are likely to be indicted this week. A sixth player apparently committed suicide as investigators started a probe into the extent of the claims.

According to authorities, the professional players were betting their own money on the outcome of games online. One report says the rigging may have been linked to crime gangs operating both in South Korea and China.

Jeong Jong-kwan, a Seoul United midfielder who allegedly was a go-between for match-fixing brokers and K-League players, was found after apparently hanging himself. According to reports, a note found beside his body read: "I’m ashamed of myself as a person involved in the match fixing scandal. Those under investigation are all my friends and they haven’t blown my name because of friendship. All is my fault and I got them involved."

Mr. Jeong was the second player to take his own life after former Incheon United goalkeeper Yoon Ki-won was found dead in his car in an earlier apparent suicide.

In an effort to weed out corruption, K-League officials have announced that players who came out before June 13 with details of match-fixing would be treated leniently.

On June 2, it was revealed that Pohang Steelers had shown the door to midfielder Kim Jung-kyum for allegedly betting on the result of a Steelers match two months earlier. He is a seven-times honored South Korean international and had turned out for the Steelers nine times this season, the last time just five days before he was fired.

Yet despite the fact the allegations only started to appear late last month, some reports claim professional soccer clubs have been quietly releasing players amid rumors of suspected betting scams since as early as last year.

Kim Tong-hyung, a former soccer writer with a South Korean national newspaper and now a business journalist, said the allegations are extremely damaging.

"These types of scams are said to be quite common in Korean professional sports – years ago a star basketball player was suspended for exactly the same crime," he says adding: "Incredibly, he was allowed to return for the playoffs. Leagues haven't been treating this problem seriously. I think the investigation will unearth a disturbing depth of ineptitude and complacency."

The end result in this soccer scandal may be that the few fans the league did have, leave.

"Fans long have been deriding the quality of play," says Kim. "Now this scandal adds insult to injury for a league that is desperate to be taken seriously. In that case this could be the league's darkest moment in its 29-year existence."

Still, all hope is not yet lost: The South Korean government this week revealed a possible measure to place restrictions on the cash that governing bodies receive from the country's only sports betting organization. And punishments, including jail time and fines, for those taking part in illegal sports betting could also be significantly increased.

But given that suspect names and information about their dodgy deeds emerge almost daily, these dark days in the annals of the South Korean soccer story could descend even murkier depths.

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