Pay-to-Play and the Culture of Corruption

If there’s been one tier of Korean domestic football that has not been fraught with allegations of bribery and corruption, it has been the high school and university levels. However, a briefly reported and quickly buried story by Yonhap yesterday may have tarnished the innocence of youth football in Korea, if only just a little.

The face of it is another Jeonbuk mini-scandal, though it does not seem to directly involve the club this time. Yonhap News reported that Jeonju local police arrested a former Jeonbuk Hyundai coach with the last name Kim. Korean defamation laws prevent Kim’s full name from being publicly reported, but the article left enough clues for netizens to determine that the man at the centre of the controversy goes by the name of Kim Leeju. A former K League forward himself, 51 year-old Kim took the reins of Gunsan Jeil High School’s football program in 2008 and only left in January of last year to be appointed coach at Jeonbuk Hyundai. He was let go at the end of the season. But back to the story.

The scandal? While coaching a high school team, Kim is accused of receiving two bribes, totaling 90 million won (78,500$ USD), from parents of aspiring footballers on the promise that he would use his contacts at an “university in the metropolitan area (presumably Seoul)” to register their children as “exceptional athletes”. It’s a big fix. In comparison, the Jeonbuk scout at the heart of the club’s match-fixing scandal received bribes of 5 million won, while the officials in that case received three-digit figures (USD).

Not many other details at this point – we don’t know when he received the bribes, nor who the players are. Should more details from this emerge, it could even tarnish playing careers of some individuals. One can only hope that this isn’t the tip of an iceburg. But this kind of pay-to-play situation raises once again the question of the culture of corruption that those in positions of power have created across Korean football (and with the Park Geun-hye’s impeachment trial underway, in Korean political activity as well…).

Culture of corruption

It’s difficult to tie Kim to Jeonbuk, because presumably Jeonbuk didn’t know about this incident. However, the optics are far from good ones when a club which has not even begun cleaning up its image now has to admit they hired someone who previously received bribes. And it certainly doesn’t bid well for the general reputation of football in South Korea. After Jeonbuk Hyundai were expelled from the 2017 Asian Champions League and docked 9 points in the 2016 K League (which eventually cost them the title), distrust in the integrity of the game is on the rise, and the collective shrug with which this incident was met confirms that reality.

A timeline

Corruption is everywhere, and has been for a while.

  • In 1998, footballing legend Cha Bum-kun, fired mid-World Cup by the KFA, revealed that he personally saw games being fixed on the domestic scene. He was reprimanded for his whistle-blowing with a ban from all footballing activities for 5 years, but the damage (for the KFA) was done.
  • In 2008 and 2009, bribery scandals struck the lower annals of Korean football, including the K3 League and National League.
  • In 2011, over 50 K-League players were embroiled in controversy when a mammoth match-fixing scandal struck the Korean football scene. Life-bans were quickly handed out and some players even resorted to suicide.
  • Then, we learned in 2015 that two referees had fixed matches from Gyeongnam FC in 2013 and 2014. One of those referees was involved in Jeonbuk’s scandal.
  • Not to mention that former Korean Football Association president and business tycoon Chung Mongjoon was banned by FIFA last year from all footballing activities for 6 years due to “unethical conduct.”

So are heads rolling?

Our own Steve Price, in a feature article for These Football Times, wrote this: “It is well-known that gambling syndicates exist and that they are willing to try to fix matches in any league no matter where,” but, “it is hardly the case of a domestic sporting body being powerless in the face of a multi-billion dollar crime-syndicate. The blame for the recent match fixing scandal can be laid on one door: that of the Korean game’s governing bodies.”

But heads haven’t been rolling, and fundamental reform remains firmly a pipe-dream. There is a power struggle for the top position of the K League at the moment, with vice chairman of Hyundai Heavy Industries Kwon Ohgap remaining as league commissioner after the league electoral delegates turned on the sole candidate who put his name forward in this January’s election. College professor and former footballer Shin Moonsun, seen as too radical and dangerous to the financial stability of the league, promised to make “regaining fans’ trust by reinforcing punishment on corruption” his first priority. A supporter of the de-conglomeration of the league, Shin was set to the break the trend of recent K League presidents, as he did not represent any corporate or conglomerate interests. The date of the new election has not been set.

At the national level, KFA President Chung Monggyu (a cousin of the recently banned Chung Mongjoon) was acclaimed to a new term as president of the South Korean governing body last July. No candidate stood to defeat Chung, presumably because of the strong internal support that he has with the Hyundai family.

Could things get worse?

Public apathy with the K League is not a binary problem – there are multiple issues and no uniform fix. But this graph says it all, really:

Will things get worse? Hopefully not. But if we see a decline in K League attendance this season, after 4 years of very marginal but non-negligible growth, all these tales of corruption – be they headline grabbers or one-day stories – will bear the blame… but those presiding over said tales will continue to go off scotch-free.

About Tim Lee 229 Articles
The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?