Match-fixing ban triggers alarm bells ahead of AFF Suzuki Cup

The AFC’s Solidarity Cup was dealt a blow this week when four Laos players were suspended following a probe into suspected match manipulation.

HWASUNG, SOUTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 03: Kim Jin-Su of South Korea compete for the ball with Phommapanya Saynakhonevieng of Laos during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier Round 2 - Group G match between South Korea and Laos at Hwaseong on September 3, 2015 in Hwasung, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

The sad reality of global football, especially at the ‘lower’ levels, is that often you simply don’t know just how results were obtained and that was again brought into stark contrast this week with the provisional suspension of four Laos national team players by the AFC.

As long as gambling on football, both legalised and of the underground variety, has existed so too have attempts to ‘fix’ the outcomes of those matches with the majority of the global trade being orchestrated from Southeast Asia, which places the upcoming Suzuki Cup squarely in the cross-hairs of those trying to root out the problem.

The challenge has always been in gathering evidence against those responsible and then issuing penalties to dissuade those that follow from pursuing the same course of action, and as was the case with the Laos quartet, the warnings are often not heeded.

In announcing the provisional bans the choice of wording was clearly well considered with the AFC noting that the players in question are being additionally investigated for matters stretching back more than half a decade. While suspicious betting patterns were also highlighted by other bodies following the team’s scarcely believable 4-1 loss to Macau at their second match at the ongoing ‘Solidarity’ Cup.

Laos, in particular, has long been a thorn in the AFC’s side, with one of the country’s largest and most successful club sides believed to have routinely been fixing matches – both home and abroad – for several years.

Much of that manipulation is also believed to have been orchestrated by those who wield influential positions in the country’s football industry. It is also understood to have been driven by a cabal of former players.

So while this first series of bans are welcomed perhaps the time has come to consider a broader ban on football in the country as a whole.

Whilst that would hurt those small number of clubs, led by league champions Lanexang, who have been vocal in trying to root out match-fixing, it would send a powerful message to administrators, coaches and players that the altering of results should not be seen as an alternate income stream – as it currently is by a great many in the country.

Former Laos national coach Steve Darby this week came up with another solution, telling FOX Sports Asia that he believes actually pouring funds from the gambling industry back into the game is perhaps the way forward.

“The simple answer is to legalise betting and have the profits ploughed back into the game.

“Let’s not be naïve, betting is rife in Southeast Asia despite its so-called illegality, so let’s harness it for the good of the game and reduce the cancerous aspects that are occurring now,” the veteran coach said.

AFF Suzuki Cup Qualifying hat-trick hero Phatthana Syvilay is one of four Laos players suspended.

Having coached a host of club and national teams across Asia, Darby doesn’t believe that banning Laos is the way to go, arguing that it would impact those who are working hard to clean things up.

“A ban would punish all the good, honest, people and the kids as well and there are many good people in football in Laos who are working hard.

“While I’m glad the players have been caught and suspended they are just the bullets and we need to catch those who fire the guns. So the key is to get to the main match-fixers and for that football needs to work with the police, as there are layers above the players with the runners, the arrangers and of course the illegal bookies.”

That paints a fairly clear picture of just how deeply entrenched the problem is in some parts of Southeast Asia with that chain of command being played out in basically every nation in the region where fixing is often a weekly concern.

Undeniably, the Suzuki Cup is a major beacon for those groups and it’s believed that key international monitoring agencies as well as the AFC itself will be keeping a very close eye on those performing at the tournament with the message, in the wake of the recent bans, being a clear one.

If you try to fix, we’ll be trying to catch you and that’s a welcome move from the continental body that has often not come down as hard as it should in other cases.

Scott McIntyre

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