The 15 for 2015 at the Tavern continues: as we wind down 2015, here are some of the events that defined Korean football this year. Down to #12. Never thought I’d see the day Sepp Blatter would resign as president of FIFA where he’s held court for the better part of 15 years -but the kind of culture of corruption seen at those high levels indirectly paralleled other aspects of the sport, including scandals that was unearthed in Korea this year. But that wasn’t even the first scandal to mar the image of football in Korea. The first in 2011 was massive; 50 arrests led to eventually 41 players earning lifetime bans for various offenses including match fixing. It brought ignominious shame to the league. An attendance decline for pro football matches already underway before the scandal broke was further exacerbated afterwards.
The specter of 2011 has haunted the K-League ever since…which make the headlines coming out of Gyeongnam all the more remarkable: mounting evidence revealed that Ahn Jong-Bok, Gyeongnam FC’s president approached referees sometime during the 2013-2014 season with offers of tens of thousands of dollars. In exchange, favorable decisions would go the club’s way during matches. Not that it helped with their struggles on the pitch. They were eventually relegated by season’s end.
An ongoing investigation turned up further evidence of wrongdoing by Ahn. In October, he was arrested for corruption and embezzlement charges. In November, after questioning several people, 2 referees initially were arrested. 2 more have been jailed in the following days. Meanwhile, the club has since distanced itself from Ahn and fired him, but damage done: they were docked 10 points for the upcoming 2016 season and fined $70,000.
Korean legend Lee Young-pyo took it to social media to call on K League & KFA to investigate every referee & club on potential match-fixing.
— Steve Han (@RealSteveScores) December 9, 2015
LYP: "Now is not the time for KLeague to protect its image. It's time to earn the fans' trust by showing efforts to clean up the game."
— Steve Han (@RealSteveScores) December 9, 2015
Which is fine, and all respect -but similar phrases were uttered by the K-League after 2011’s scandals broke out. Could it be prevented from this time onward or will it happen again?
Which leads me to ask, are there structural problems in Korean pro football that indirectly led to the bribery charges and more abject humiliation for the league once again?
While 2011’s focus was on players and underworld elements, 2014’s was between a club president on the DL with referees. Are players and referees paid low enough that they’re either susceptible to bribes to supplement their low income – or that the known low salary quotient simply invites opportunities hidden from light to keep on happening with varying frequency?
I asked sports journalist Steve Han, who’s been covering Korean football re: one of the breakout stars of the Asian Cup, Busan I’Park’s Lee Jung-Hyup. Here’s his shockingly low salary:
@taeguk_warrior $36k. And Busan can't re-sign him for more than $72k per year because of the salary cap on rookie contracts.
— Steve Han (@RealSteveScores) December 28, 2015
Is salary caps for rookies an unusual arrangement for a major sports league? Here’s Steve’s reply: “It is undeniably weird. This is also a big reason why so many young players go to Japan when they’re out of college. If they’re going to put a cap on maximum salaries for rookies, they should also require a decent minimum salaries too. But that’s not the case. Minimum salary for a rookie averages $25k. And they wonder why their own players spurn them…”
That’s just the players who are obviously higher profile than the referees. What about the refs, what are their salaries? Is it on par with what refs make in, I don’t know, Japan?
Finally, does the lack of an audience in the K-league also invite that kind of cavalier, ‘who gives a rats ass/so why shouldn’t we,’ rationale for some referees or others to participate in illicit pay-for-decisions payoff schemes. Average attendance in the K-League this past season: a mere 7K. Contrast that to Japan’s J-League: 17K. Even in the US, where it’s 5th fiddle to other sports, they’re now averaging 21K! Riffing off an old adage: If a football match was held in a K-League stadium and no one was there to see it, did it really happen?
Gyeongnam FC fans hold protest outside of the club's home ground, calling for resignation of the entire board. pic.twitter.com/wtlSFN06IQ
— Steve Han (@RealSteveScores) December 21, 2015
It blows my mind that current Premier League players Ki Sung-Yeung and Lee Chung-Yong (both of whom recently scored game winning goals for their respective clubs), once plied the K-League, drawing K-League level salaries. It’s such a strange football environment, where generally speaking, Koreans love the national team (as evidenced in 2002 when millions poured into the streets to celebrate), yet somehow fail to support domestic pro football -the bread and butter for many players in the national squad. Conundrums, and then some. Room to change and grow for the better: certainly…but how is another question for another time.
Extra Time: Not to hang in negative bummer territory, first a congratulations to Lee Chung-Yong who left Crystal Palace with his super hot game winning goal last weekend. Instead of festive season matches -he’s in Korea to be with his wife who had a new baby!
We’ll also latch onto Ki Sung-Yeung’s scrappy, yet downright righteous goal for Swansea on Boxing Day. Struggling to get out of the relegation zone, Ki’s goal was just enough to earn a 1-0 victory over West Bromich. Just like that, Swans are out of relegation. Check out a highlight reel of his silky touches from Boxing Day: (fast forward to 0:58 to see his goal)
and this happened earlier today: Lee Seung-Woo notched a hat trick in a ‘Share the Dream’ charity futsol game assembled by Hong Myong-Bo. He linked up with a super star team that included Chelsea Ladies Ji So-Yun, Augsburg’s duo of Ji Dong-Won and Koo Ja-Cheol, Borussia Dortmund’s Park Joo-ho, and Hoffenheim’s Kim Jin-Su.
— Nicole Chung 정니콜 (@0Nicole0_) December 27, 2015
Check out his fireworks during his goals – and stay for the antics afterwards – it’s quite hilarious:
Spoiler alert: for me, the highlight was the 2nd goal, cross by Ji So-Yun with a confident backheel with flair. If that wasn’t enough, he starts dancing with the pretty TV announcer! Next week he and Paik Seung-Ho re-joins his Barca academy teammates on January 6th. Countdown at the Tavern has already begun.
BREAKING !!!! THIS JUST IN:
Ex-Cardiff and Wigan midfielder Kim Bo-kyung has reportedly rejected the offer from Gamba Osaka and decided to join Jeonbuk Hyundai.
— Korea Football News (@KORFootballNews) December 28, 2015
and from outside the world of football and intra geo politics of East Asia, this:
(URGENT) Abe expresses 'apology, repentance from heart' to 'comfort women': Japan FM https://t.co/INmGQAlxtz
— Yonhap News Agency (@YonhapNews) December 28, 2015
A follow up tweet from Yonhap reports 1 Billion Yen offer of compensation fund to former sex slaves in Korea. I haven’t confirmed this, only going with those initial tweets by Yonhap. If true, could be groundbreaking in a 70 year effort for justice – and a pivotal thaw in relations between Seoul and Tokyo.