There was a feeling of depressing familiarity as Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors faced the news on Wednesday they wouldn’t be able to defend their 2016 AFC Champions League-title.
It did not just stem, alone, from the fact the Green Warriors had originally been punished in September by the K-League Classic’s disciplinary committee after they found one of their scouts had bribed referees during the 2013 domestic season.
Neither did it matter that the indiscretion hung over November’s 3-2 aggregate victory against Al Ain as a second ACL crown was claimed. As such, there was little surprise when the continental governing organisation’s eventual decision in midweek from its Entry Control Body – appealed to sport’s highest legal body, the Court of Arbitration for Sport – stated the holders would be kicked out of the upcoming edition.
Instead, this overriding sensation originated from the endemic problem within the South Korean game in regards to match fixing.
Football there had first officially felt its baleful presence during 2011. More than 50 players, past and present, were found guilty of rigging results to aid betting, while ex-Jeonbuk midfielder Jung Jong-kwan, Incheon United goalkeeper Yoon Ki-won, Suwon Bluewings star Lee Kyung-hwan and Sangju Sangmu head coach Lee Soo-chul all allegedly committed suicide.
This continued two years ago when it was decided ex-Gyeongnam FC CEO Ahn Jung-buk had repeatedly made illicit payments to officials in an attempt to avoid relegation, which worked in 2013 but failed 12 months later.
The Jeonbuk situation has moved a lingering issue – then national team manager Cha Bum-kun was hit by a five-year ban for dishonouring Korean football in 1998 after he claimed games had been fixed during the early years of that decade – back to the forefront.
For esteemed 127-times-capped ex-South Korea full-back Lee Young-pyo, the damage cuts far deeper than a missed Asian campaign and the eventual loss of the 2016 top-flight title to FC Seoul because of autumn’s nine-point deduction and £100 million won (Dh312,542) fine.
“It is truly disappointing and shameful, as honesty is the most important element in sports,” the ex-Tottenham defender and current pundit for national public broadcaster Korean Broadcasting System told Sport360 about Jeonbuk’s misdemeanour. “From this, I hope everyone realises how important it is to win fairly with honesty.
“Everyone needs to recognise that there are things more important in soccer than winning. That is, a fair loss is more beautiful than a dishonest victory.”
Match fixing’s nefarious influence is not unique to South Korea.
Since the turn of the millennium it caused the 2006 ‘Calciopoli’ scandal in Italy, whereby fixtures were rigged by the selection of favourable referees. Serie A champions Juventus were stripped of two titles and relegated, while AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina also faced varying sanctions.
Even the rarified surroundings of German football have not escaped its touch. Referee Robert Hoyzer confessed in 2005 to being at the centre of a £2m (Dh10m) ring which involved fixing and betting on matches in the 2nd Bundesliga, the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) and the third division Regionalliga.
Singapore’s Dan Tan has been detained on suspicion of coordinating a global football match-fixing syndicate, whose presence has been felt in South America, Italy, Finland and Hungary.
The decision to remove Shanghai Shenhua’s 2003 Chinese Super League-triumph four years ago is one of many transgressions there. Yet the frequency witnessed of such flare-ups continues to cause alarm about Asia’s oldest professional league, in Korea.
Finances present opportunity. The K-League Classic continues to battle for significance against the dominant KBO League for baseball and growing presence of eSports.
The average player’s wage in football’s top flight there is 199m won (Dh621,960) per annum, with Jeonbuk’s Brazilian forward Leonardo (below) being the highest paid on 1.5 billion won (Dh4.8m) prior to this January’s move to Al Jazira.
For referees, they take home between £35m-60m won (Dh109,390-187,526) a year.
These figures are much smaller than those found in Europe’s leading competitions. For example, players were paid an average wage of £2.4m (Dh10.9m) in the English Premier League during 2015/16 and in 2014/15 professional referee Martin Atkinson was remunerated to the tune of £150,650 (Dh682,010) when his retainer and match fees were combined.
Declan Hill is a renowned investigative journalist and academic, who has written two books on the subject of match fixing – The Fix: Organized Crime and Soccer and The Insider’s Guide to Match-Fixing. He is strident in his belief that unfair working conditions lie at the heart of the issue.
He said: “Back in 2009, a South Korean journalist interviewed me and told me fixing would never be a problem in that country as they were too honest.
“I pointed out this is the same thing that Singaporeans, Germans and dozens of other countries around the world had said, but the new face of gambling would change it.
“This is because they treat athletes across Korean sports as effective slaves. Very little labour protection, very little autonomy for the players – they force them to kiss the hands of the owners, so of course, athletes protest.”
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, winners of last season's Asian Champions League have barred from this year's competition due to a bribery scandal. pic.twitter.com/p8gYCued1b— PakPassion Sport (@PakPassionSport) January 21, 2017
The 2011 revelations caused changes. Life bans were issued and players and coaches have been educated about match fixing.
The K-League also launched the Clean Football Association, an anti-corruption body, in the wake of Ahn’s 2015 conviction. But for Goal.com Korea journalist Steve Han, more action was required.
“Not much [has been done] besides banning the players and coaches who were involved in the  scandal, as well as the referee appointment system,” he said.
“One day before every round, the referees are sent to a region that’s close to where the game will be played without knowing which game they’ll referee. They only find out in the morning of the game.”
Yet for Hill, such initiatives do not go far enough.
He said: “Reforms were good but there has to be a fundamental change in South Korean sports. Athletes need to recognised and respected as professionals.
“Their wages need to be paid on time. Their contracts need to move on from indentured labour.”
The latest developments with Jeonbuk have not been met with huge fanfare. Many commentators felt they had got off lightly in the autumn, while the club itself does not expect its overtures to the CAS to either be successful or timely enough to partake in next month’s ACL group stages.
South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has expressed its firm stance against corruption in professional sports.
But chillingly, Han does not expect this latest scandal to have much of a braking effect.
He said: “It most definitely will not be a final incident. In fact, I see it as a tip of a much bigger iceberg.
“It is not that I believe something similar ‘will’ happen in the future, as it is reasonable to believe some form of corruption has been and still is taking place in Korea.
“Every major sport in Korea, including the immensely popular eSports, has been hit by match-fixing in one way or the other.”
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