K-League Scandal Puts Betting Under Spotlight

Just when it looked like it couldn’t get any more depressing, the K-League “Match-Fixing” saga did just that today as a second footballer linked to the fixing of professional football matches in Korea was found dead at a hotel in Seoul. Jung Jong Kwan of K3 side Seoul United, and formerly of K-Leauge outfit Jeonbuk Motors, wrote in an apparent suicide note that he was a broker involved in the fixing of matches.

Seoul United, Jung Jong Kwan's last team, play Cheonan City in this match from last year's semi-pro K3 League. The yellow advertising board is for Sports Toto

So far, five players have been arrested and the affair is also thought to have led to another player, Incheon United goalkeeper Yoon Gi Won, taking his own life earlier this month (although Yoon’s death is yet to be formally linked to match-fixing). No mater how it plays out, it is clear that for all aficionados of Korean professional Sport and especially those who enjoy the occasional (legal) punt, things are not going to be the same for a very long time.

Betting on football matches in Korea is legal through a quasi-governmental organisation called Sports Toto but it is far from clear as to whether the fixing – which has been confirmed to include a match between Daejeon Citizen and Pohang Steelers in the League Cup (equivalent to the English Carling Cup) earlier this season – involved was designed to benefit bets wagered on correct score betting on the Toto or on illegal markets. See this thread on the Rokfootball.com forum for an excellent summary of the situation and hypothesis on how the fix may have happened.

The K-League has two types of clubs. The first type are the corporate-owned ones; FC Seoul (LG/GS), Suwon Bluewings (Samsung), Jeonbuk Motors, Ulsan Tigers & Busan I’ Park (all various incarnations of Hyundai), Jeju United (SK) and Pohang Steelers (POSCO). Also included in this group is Seongnam Ilhwa, owned by the Unification Church of Reverend Moon Sun Myung (better known as “The Moonies”). The others are “Citizen” teams, without a large backer. Without the financial clout of their rivals they are unable to offer big salaries and usually make up the also-rans in the K-League championship. All players implicated so far have been members of Citizen clubs. Just as in racing in Korea, the gangs know who to target.

Worse still there are rumours that K-League clubs knew exactly what was going on but opted to quietly terminate the contracts of players they knew to be involved in accepting bribes. If true, this is potentially devastating both for the K-League and for legal betting in Korea. The National Gaming Control Commission do not miss a trick in their war on legal gambling. The K-League has asked Sports Toto to remove its matches from its products, at least for the forseeable future. This is dangerous. Once this happens, organised crime will once more hold the monopoly over football betting in Korea, just as they do over off-track horse racing betting in many parts of the country since the enforced closure of the KRA’s “K-Netz” internet and telephone betting service.

Two men are dead and others are languishing behind bars. It’s both a human and a sporting tragedy. But it is not the fault of Sports Toto. As long as competition occurs, there will be those who will find a way to bet on it. Making the legal means to do so as attractive as possible is to everyone’s benefit.

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