Corruption link to slump of Asian domestic leagues

Mohamed bin Hammam, president of the Asian Football Confederation, has identified corruption as a key element in spectators "turning off" from local leagues in Asia and preferring to watch on television what they see as fairer and more professional football competitions from Europe. "There is a great threat to the game from corruption, from match-fixing, from money-laundering," he told Donald Greenlees of the International Herald Tribune. "The game needs to be looked after more wisely."

Hammam recalled Malaysia expelling or jailing many top players and officials a decade ago in what appears to have been a successful anti-corruption campaign. "But as one country claims success in eradicating the problem, it emerges elsewhere, Greenlees commented. "In these circumstances, no country is safe," Hammam agreed by telephone interview.

The cost to the game is measured not only in declining confidence among spectators, investors and sponsors, but also, according to veteran coaches, in poorer performances on the field. "I think corruption has a lot to do with it," Bobby Houghton, former coach in China and now Indian national coach, said. "Whether it is a fact or perceived, once the corruption thing appears it's difficult to stamp it out, it's difficult to make people believe it's stamped out. Every bad refereeing decision or bad performance by a player is questioned."

Since 2003, the Asian Football Confederation has refused to accept referees from countries where corruption is perceived to be rife. "There are countries where we are not recruiting anyone - no officials, no managers," Hammam said, while declining to name the countries.

Steve Vickers, chief executive of Hong Kong-based International Risk, who investigated illegal gambling for the gambling industry, told Greenlees there were indications that even in countries in Asia where gambling was legal, like Japan, bets made with well-organized illegal syndicates accounted for up to 70 percent of total gambling on some sports. "It's a major organised-crime enterprise," Vickers said. "The explosive growth in illegal gambling has been in football betting."

Dong Lu, who does television football commentary and writes for Sports Weekly, China's biggest national sports newspaper, said management and playing standards had improved in the years after the creation of the first professional league in 1993. However, he added "confidence has been eroded. The unceasing reports about black whistles and match- fixing have convinced investors and advertisers that it's a bad vehicle for their business."

Comment: Don Greenlees' excellent report is worth reading in its entirety. What is does miss, perhaps, is the possible link between the popularity of European football, particularly the English Premier League, and those many Asians whose interest in football is based more on gambling than love of its aesthetics or athletics. After all, if the local league is considered corrupted, why "take a punt". It will be interesting to track next season's television popularity of Italian football in China and other Asian countries if the charges of massive match-fixing by any of the Serie A clubs Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, Reggina, Siena and Empol and Serie B sides Messina, Lecce and Arezzo, are proven in court.

See also: Asia must build stronger leagues to raise standard (26 June)