Jeonbuk’s inclusion a major blemish on AFC’s reputation

The failure of the AFC to expel Jeonbuk Hyundai from this year’s Champions League following their match-fixing conviction is a major embarrassment.

Like systemic doping cheats in the former East Germany and Russia or the litany of fabricators now emerging from the world of cycling those at the AFC who continue to turn a blind eye to the match manipulators eating away cancerously at Asian football stand to be judged on the wrong side of history.

When it’s convenient to swipe at smaller clubs – many, such as Cambodian outfit Phnom Penh, who have done nothing wrong – the AFC will proudly stand and proclaim they are adopting a ‘zero tolerance’ approach yet when it’s their headline club backed by a major financial contributor everyone runs for cover and quite literally turns a blind eye.

The admission of a club in Jeonbuk Hyundai, who earlier this year had a former staff member convicted for attempted match manipulation, to next year’s Asian Champions League is a black eye for those in the AFC who are cowering to commercial interests ahead of sporting integrity.

By admitting the Korean outfit, bankrolled by prominent AFC sponsor Hyundai, into the 2017 ACL, the AFC have made a mockery of their own oft-stated stance of eradicating match fixing and what’s more have seemingly flown directly in the face of their own recently published guidelines that specifically address this issue.

In late September this year a court in the southern city of Busan convicted a former Jeonbuk club scout, identified only by the surname Cha, and sentenced him to a suspended six month jail term over the bribery of two referees in the 2013 K.League season.

The K.League disciplinary committee reacted with a hefty penalty; fining the club almost US$100,000 and docking them nine points – a punishment which ultimately cost them the league title this season.

They did end up second though and hence ‘qualified’ for this year’s ACL after winning the continental crown late last month, despite widespread condemnation from supporters, including those of their semifinal opponents, FC Seoul, who displayed a banner with a collection of AFC statutes on it, inside the stadium as a stark reminder to anyone who may have missed the message.

Too big to punish?

The relevant items they didn’t quote though come from the recently released AFC ‘Entry Manual for Club Competitions.’

In amongst a whole jumble of technical requirement is Item 11.8, conveniently titled ‘Clubs directly or indirectly involved in match manipulation.’

That clause states:

“If, on the basis of all the factual circumstances and information available to the AFC, the AFC concludes to its comfortable satisfaction that a club has been directly and/or indirectly involved…in any activity aimed at arranging or influencing the outcome of a match at national or international level, such club shall be declared ineligible to participate in AFC competitions.”

That’s pretty much as black and white as it gets, although there are a couple of following ‘qualifying’ clauses but none which fit the situation with Jeonbuk.

Let’s recap then: Jeonbuk have clearly been ‘involved in activity arranged at influencing the outcome of a match’ yet are not declared ‘ineligible’ to participate in the ACL.

I’m sure someone, somewhere, within the labyrinth that is the AFC has a good answer as to why that might be the case.

Why too they have failed to address their organisation’s own ‘Vision & Mission’ statement ‘One Asia, One Goal,’ which at Mission Item Six proudly states that the body will ‘ensure that the AFC’s competitions, matches and the conduct of its people conform to the highest ethical and sporting standards.’

What needs to be clearly understood by those within the AFC supporting the inclusion of Jeonbuk – and there are plenty with integrity who don’t – is that you can’t just have all your fancy workshops and ‘corporate buzzwords’ and then not do anything when presented with a case that sits uncomfortably with your commercial interests.

The AFC needs to understand, blinded as they are by the whir of flashy suits and fancy hotels, that they exist to develop and promote football in the region and to support the only ‘eternal stakeholders’ of the game – the fans.

Yet here we were this week with Jeonbuk the headline attraction at the 2017 ACL draw in Kuala Lumpur, which was conducted, ironically, by the monotone South Korean Shin Man-gil, the AFC’s Director of Competitions.

As with all these things there was a ‘glittering’ ceremony, the sponsors and ‘stakeholders’ were all present and correct; the TV cameras panned to leading executives in the region and little balls were pulled out of a pot.

Given the ties between the club and the AFC coffers it was hardly a surprise that the governing body had attempted to skirt their very own regulations and one of those names revealed was ‘Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors,’ slotted into Group H alongside Chinese outfit Jiangsu, Australian side Adelaide and a yet to be determined playoff club.

Just who made this decision to deliberately ignore their own regulations is hard – in the internecine web of AFC politics – to determine and repeated requests over multiple days for comment from the AFC have gone unanswered.

One thing is clear though and that’s the head of the organisation bears ultimate responsibility.

Upon his election as AFC President, Sheikh Salman of Bahrain, told me directly, in the lobby of a Malaysian hotel of his ‘overwhelming desire’ to clean up Asian football and rid it of the ‘scourge’ of match fixing.

Here is his chance to make a stand and remove Jeonbuk from the tournament and with it send a very powerful message to all the smaller clubs across the region who continue to treat the game as some kind of cash machine, to use, abuse and manipulate as they see fit.

The AFC might bury their statutes deep in the electronic realm, might pay for a fleet of friendly journalists to attend their glittering events and then remain silent and might think that their corporate needs come ahead of their financial ones but the lifeblood of the game – the fans – aren’t so easily fooled.

On behalf of clubs everywhere doing their part to rid the game of match fixing and supporters across Asia who want to see the continent’s premier club competition contested by not just those with outstanding sporting principles but also moral ones, here’s hoping the AFC might look to apply their very own statutes and remove this tainted club.

Scott McIntyre

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