Corruption in Hong Kong soccer league meets its match

Corruption in Hong Kong soccer league meets its match

14 June 2023 ( The Globe and Mail )

It’s the last game of the season in the second tier of Hong Kong’s soccer league, and players on the pitch outnumber spectators by about two-to-one. With the sun blazing down and the temperature above 31 degrees, five fans are braving the metal bleachers, while others sit on the grass across the pitch, in a tiny patch of shade.

Discomfort is the least of supporters’ problems. For years now, soccer in Hong Kong has been plagued by claims of match fixing, with fans often complaining about dodgy decisions by referees, strangely convenient results, and bizarre behaviour by players and coaches.

On May 16, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) said it had arrested 23 people after a months-long investigation into corruption in the First Division, Hong Kong soccer’s second tier, below the Premier League. Those arrested included members of a bookmaking syndicate, and 11 players and a coach from a single team, widely reported in local media to be Happy Valley.

According to ICAC investigators, the syndicate fixed matches throughout the most recent season. Players and coaches would be offered bribes of up to 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,700) to throw a game or secure a specific result. They would communicate with each other during matches using predetermined hand gestures or by pulling up or down their socks.

Happy Valley, which finished 11th out of 14, conceded 84 goals over the season, 27 of those after the 75th minute, the most of any club in the First Division. It also conceded four own goals, more than all but one team. The club did not respond to a request for comment.

For fans such as Steven Cheung, the news came as no surprise. “We know match fixing is happening, we just can’t prove it,” he told The Globe and Mail at a ground in Tai Po, a town in northern Hong Kong. Fans often share shaky videos of apparently suspicious incidents online, but there is little they can do beyond that but call a Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) hotline most see as useless.

In the past, it was often referees who were corrupt, and Cheung said he had been at matches where officials delayed leaving the pitch to avoid walking past furious fans. But the ICAC said no referees were implicated in the most recent scandal, and safeguards have been put in place in recent years, such as better training and the introduction of independent assessors to monitor officials’ calls.

“We’ve seen a move away from bribing referees, because this has become quite difficult, to approaching players,” said Tobias Zuser, a researcher in sports and cultural policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In lower divisions, players are often amateurs or low-paid semi-professionals, “and if they face other pressures, like financial problems or gambling addiction, that can become a big vulnerability for them to be approached by match fixers.”

Former HKFA chairman Mark Sutcliffe – who retired in 2018 after six years in the job – said administrators had worked hard to clean up the sport, particularly at the highest levels, introducing compulsory training and appointing integrity experts, but even then, “I wouldn’t be confident that the Premier League is totally clean.”

“It wasn’t in my time, so I don’t see why it should be different now,” he said. “There are many ways in which a match can be manipulated for betting profit other than losing the match or giving away goals.” Sutcliffe said he had been told of even lower-division matches attracting millions of dollars in bets. “It’s no wonder that players who earn peanuts are tempted, especially when they know the chances of being caught are so low.”

Betting on soccer is illegal in Hong Kong, but the proliferation of poorly regulated online platforms around the world has made fixing games potentially lucrative, even ones watched by only a handful of people. Larger platforms pay for data from sports companies and are constantly on the lookout for suspicious statistics – and may suspend betting on a match or team if they spot potential manipulation – but smaller betting companies typically have less monitoring in place, Zuser said.

“There are dodgier gambling companies in Southeast Asia where you can find a way around most checks,” he said.

Data company Sportradar said it logged more than 1,200 suspicious matches globally across 12 sports last year, an increase of 34 per cent from 2021. The majority – 775 – involved soccer, and more than half took place in lower-tier competitions, which are generally untelevised and poorly attended.

Corruption has long been a problem in Hong Kong. In 2014, a Happy Valley player and deputy manager were found guilty of conspiring to fix a match, while three years later, five players from former Premier League side Pegasus were charged with trying to fix reserve league matches.

Structural issues contribute to this. With no ticket or TV revenue for games outside the Premier League, teams are more dependent on sponsors for money, and there is only a small circle of companies willing to pay: a review of 24 teams in the top two tiers showed six businesses sponsored more than one side, and three sponsored three teams each. Ownership is often opaque, with individuals or companies involved in more than one club, increasing the incentive to fix matches to help a team secure promotion or avoid relegation.

“In my experience, there are a lot of people involved in football in Hong Kong who are in it for personal gain and really don’t care about football at all,” Sutcliffe said. “Such a shame for the many people who love it and want to see a clean, professional, successful sport. The minority spoiling it for the majority.”