2011. Ah, what a year. Osama Bin Laden was killed and Kim Jong-il died. Pyeongchang won the rights to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. The Arab Spring and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Personally, 2011 was the year I went back to Korea for the first time since leaving the country as an adopted baby. It was the year I saw my first K League match. The IPark (then I’Park) at the majestic Asiad Main Stadium (for those who have never been to the Asiad, I am being massively sarcastic). The game was fun, although sparsely attended. I digress.
So, mini-recap. On May 6, 2011 the body of Incheon United goalkeeper Yoon Ki-won (윤기원) was found in his car in a parking lot. Next to him was a envelope with about $1,000 in it and a half-burnt charcoal briquette. The police surmised that he had committed suicide.
The death of Yoon Ki-won prompted investigations into the league. A few weeks later, prosecutors from the Changwon office issued arrest warrants for two pro footballers – Daejeon Citizen’s Park Sang-wook (박상욱) and Gwangju FC’s Sung Kyung-mo (성경모). More arrests followed, and another player, Jung Jong-kwan (정종관, former Jeonbuk Hyundai, then at Seoul United), committed suicide. Jung Jong-kwan left a note stating he was ashamed to have participated in the match-fixing scheme and getting his friends/teammates involved. Ultimately, almost 50 current and former K League players were indicted on charges related to match-fixing with several receiving prison sentences.
In Korea, sports betting is illegal except through the state-run Sports Toto (스포츠토토). However, there were (are?) many illegal “Toto sites” as well. These are the sites that were involved in the scandal. Who was involved? Most of the players were at the smaller government-funded teams (Daejeon, Incheon, Gwangju, Daegu, etc.) where pay was low and not as much focus was being paid.
Following the scandal the league was dealt a massive blow as former players and others around the league anonymously revealed that illegal betting and match-fixing had been commonplace around the league. Fans lost faith in the league’s integrity and attendance and support dropped significantly. The average attendance for the league in 2011 was around 11,000 per match, and in 2012 it dropped to about 7,000 per match. It would take years for attendance to recover.
The government-funded teams also took a significant hit. Discussions about whether local governments should fund sports teams. The military team, then Sangju Sangmu, was also involved.
The KFA shoots themselves in the foot
Fast-forward to today and quietly (and suddenly) just before the match against Uruguay, the KFA announced that they were issuing pardons to 100 individuals – including those who had received bans from the 2011 match-fixing scandal. In the announcement, the KFA stated,
“We congratulated ourselves on advancing to the World Cup 10 times in a row and advancing to the round of 16 in the World Cup in Qatar, which we achieved last year, and reflected the opinions of the field that proposed an amnesty for harmony and a new start in the football world. There is also the purpose of giving another chance to footballers who are judged to have self-reflection and self-reflection for a long time.”– KFA statement (translation via SpoTV News)
The reaction to the announcement was swift and severe. Criticism of the decision flooded the KFA’s social media accounts. The Red Devils, the official national team supporter group, threatened to boycott future matches if the decision was not reversed.
As such, the KFA suddenly announced a previously unscheduled meeting to discuss the decision.
So, on Friday (3/31) KFA chairman Chung Mong-gyu (정몽규) held a press conference where he announced that the pardoning would be cancelled completely. Chung Mong-gyu said that he was continuously being told by players for the past couple years that it was time to forgive those who had sinned and time to move on. He apologized for failing to anticipate or realize the scars the fans had received from the scandal. And then he left without answering any questions.
(You can read Chung Mong-gyu’s full statement in Korean on the KFA’s website)
What to think?
The situation is weird all around. Why pardon them now? Why pardon them at all? I am aware that in Korea there is this thing of pardoning your former enemies to built trust and as a sign of good will (or to balance things). An example would be of President Yoon Suk-yeol pardoning former liberal governor Kim Kyoung-soo and former conservative president Lee Myeong-bak. Another would be former president Moon Jae-in pardoning former conservative president Park Geun-hye.
So, in that light, pardoning former players who have done wrong isn’t wild. But at the same time I can’t see the angle or ‘good’ that it does. Moon Jae-in’s pardoning of Park Geun-hye (beyond the health issues angle) was to remove political choices/decisions that may face a new liberal president and to deal a potential blow to Yoon Suk-yeol (who as supreme prosecutor had led the investigation into Park Geun-hye – something Park Geun-hye’s loyalists remembered well). Politics? Sure. But, he could also make the statement that pardoning her (who was supposedly in bad health) would help heal the rifts between conservatives and liberals in the country (yes she did wrong, but she was convicted and now she’s in bad health so let’s do the humane thing and let her live quietly and get treatment – granted she didn’t do the live quietly thing after getting out but… anyway, this isn’t a politics blog).
So again, what was the good angle for the KFA? Who benefits from the pardon beyond the people being pardoned? Who were the ones requesting they get pardoned? These individuals weren’t in jail anymore – the longest sentence for a footballer was 3 years. Where is the benefit to Korean footballer in letting a convicted match-fixer get involved in the sport again? To teach about how they did wrong? Not necessary I think.
This is often the problem with the KFA (and other Korean organizations). Decisions are announced and retracted so fast with so little explanation it’s hard to understand the reason or logic behind them. This breeds more distrust in the organization because it suggests things were done for personal or financial reasons. To better someone at the expense of someone else.
Fortunately the KFA reversed their decision before it was too late. Hopefully, they will remember the fans wrath the next time someone floats a ridiculous idea like this again.