Growth is good, but Asian soc­cer still has grass­roots is­sue

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

For all the new in­vest­ment and ad­vance­ments driv­ing un­prece­dented growth in Asian foot­ball, it’s an old prob­lem that is still caus­ing con­cern at the grass­roots.

Billions have been in­vested in Su­per Leagues in China and In­dia, the 2022 World Cup is com­ing to Qatar and the flow of play­ers to Europe is on the rise, giv­ing Asia some promi­nence in the global game, but re­gional soc­cer ad­min­is­tra­tors are still grap­pling with match fix­ing. The good news is, they’re fight­ing it. On Mon­day, the Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion sus­pended four play­ers from the Laos na­tional team on sus­pi­cion of match ma­nip­u­la­tion. All four were in­volved in Laos’ open­ing game against Sri Lanka at the in­au­gu­ral Sol­i­dar­ity Cup, for the lower-ranked teams in the con­ti­nent.

Steve Darby is a for­mer head coach of Laos - he was in charge dur­ing its failed qual­i­fy­ing run for the 2018 World Cup and said he was shocked and an­gered by the news. Two of the four ac­cused were in his team.

“They trained well and al­ways gave 100 per­cent in matches. I trusted them,” Darby told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “One of the oth­ers I dropped from the squad but that was for form and noth­ing else.” Darby said that, at least while he him­self was in Laos, the fourth player - a goal­keeper - was not play­ing reg­u­larly at the top club level.

“He has made a rapid rise from about eighth choice to be­com­ing the na­tional team keeper,” Darby noted. “You have to ask how this oc­curred.”

Darby has seen it from a ri­val team’s per­spec­tive. In 2014, nine play­ers of Viet­namese club Ninh Binh were found guilty of match-fix­ing in an AFC Cup match with Malaysian club Ke­lan­tan, which Darby was coach­ing at the time.

“It is hard to ac­cept when it is you that is be­ing cheated,” Darby said. “Like in all south­east Asian na­tions, there are ru­mors - some you think are fea­si­ble, some out­landish. You don’t know who is fix­ing.”

South­east Asia has long been re­garded as a hot­bed of match-fix­ing. Sin­ga­pore, home to high-pro­file al­leged match-fix­ers such as Dan Tan, has made re­cent progress in tack­ling the prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to Chris Ea­ton, FIFA’s for­mer head of se­cu­rity and now an in­de­pen­dent sports in­tegrity ad­viser.

“Sin­ga­pore has taken de­ci­sive ac­tion to con­tain lo­cally-bred match fix­ers,” Ea­ton said. “Sin­ga­pore ul­ti­mately re­al­ized that it has a duty of care to all na­tions for its home-grown crim­i­nal­ity.”

The prob­lem is by no means con­tained to one re­gion. In 2011, South Korea had a ma­jor scan­dal of its own with more than 50 play­ers and coaches, past and present, charged with rig­ging matches.

The coun­try’s lead­ing club Jeon­buk Mo­tors, which is pre­par­ing for the fi­nal of the 2016 Asian Cham­pi­ons League later this month, is un­der the shadow of its own scan­dal.

In Septem­ber, the team was stripped of nine com­pe­ti­tion points by the KLeague au­thor­i­ties af­ter a club scout was con­victed of brib­ing ref­er­ees in 2013. The pun­ish­ment cost the club, which de­nies any knowl­edge of wrong­do­ing, a third suc­ces­sive do­mes­tic ti­tle. It is also pos­si­ble that the AFC will bar Jeon­buk, cham­pion of Asia in 2006 and fi­nal­ist in 2011, from en­ter­ing the 2017 tour­na­ment.

Chi­nese soc­cer had pe­ri­odic out­breaks of cor­rup­tion un­til the au­thor­i­ties got tough in 2010, jail­ing of­fi­cials and ref­er­ees. “It has done a great deal over the past five years to ad­dress the prob­lem with sig­nif­i­cant crim­i­nal prose­cu­tions of play­ers and ref­er­ees,” Ea­ton said, al­though adding that some level of fix­ing still ex­ists.

Ea­ton said if the Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion had re­ally adopted a harsher and more proac­tive ap­proach­ing to fight­ing match fix­ing, “that will not only be good for re­gional foot­ball, but global foot­ball also.”

In a state­ment re­leased to the AP, the AFC re­it­er­ated a “zero tol­er­ance” to match ma­nip­u­la­tion and said it was de­ter­mined to stamp it out.

But Darby said while catch­ing the play­ers is nec­es­sary, more needs to be done to bring the or­ches­tra­tors of cor­rup­tion to jus­tice.

“They have caught the foot sol­diers but need to catch the gen­er­als,” he said. “If the play­ers are guilty there is some­body above them, they can­not do this on their own.”

He points to il­le­gal gam­bling as a ma­jor prob­lem. Ea­ton agrees. “MatchFix­ing is ab­so­lutely and clearly hold­ing Asian foot­ball back,” Ea­ton said. “The only way to drive or­ga­nized crime out of sport is to deny it the money.”

He said re­form­ing sports bet­ting by le­gal­iz­ing it would help en­sure it was reg­u­lated prop­erly at “na­tional, re­gional and global lev­els.” — AP

VESPASIANO, Mi­nas Gerais, Brazil : Ar­gentina’s Lionel Messi at­tends a train­ing ses­sion of the na­tional foor­ball team at the Atletico MG Train­ing Cen­tre in Vespasiano, Mi­nas Gerais, Brazil, on Tues­day ahead of their 2018 World Cup qual­i­fier match against Brazil. — AFP

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