Security measures to combat match-fixing and corruption in Hong Kong's new Premier League next season will be of utmost importance, says a top official who will take part in a high-level Asian conference involving Interpol in Kuala Lumpur.
Hong Kong Football Association chief executive Mark Sutcliffe left last night for the two-day conference organised by the Asian Football Confederation and Interpol to find the best way to fight the global scourge which has its roots in Asia thanks to criminal betting syndicates.
"It is a fact-finding mission for us. We are planning our Premier League and we want to see what steps must be taken to ensure it be clean and free of match-fixing," Sutcliffe said on Tuesday.
"We have to build in as many safeguards as possible before our new professional league is up and running," Sutcliffe said. "Recent events elsewhere indicate this is a huge problem worldwide and it will be important to understand the magnitude of it all."
On Monday, indicating the scale of the problem in Asia, China handed out life bans and fines for 33 people, including two former mainland soccer chiefs, for fixing matches. Shanghai Shenhua, the former club of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, were stripped of their 2003 title and handed a points deduction for the coming season for their role in the match-fixing scandal.
According to Europol, 380 suspicious games have been identified in Europe among nearly 700 worldwide, including Champions League ties and World Cup qualifiers, tying the problem to a criminal syndicate based in Singapore.
Interpol secretary general Ronald Noble, who will be the keynote speaker at the conference, said match-fixing generates hundreds of billions of dollars each year, comparing the revenues to multinational companies such as drinks giant Coca-Cola.
Sutcliffe said match-fixing in Hong Kong was an ever-present danger. "There is no evidence to the contrary [that Hong Kong soccer is corrupt], but it will take a bold person to say there is no corruption in the game locally. But right now we have to assume and work on the basis the game is clean here."
There have been a number of instances of graft and corruption in the local game. In 2011, a local magistrate convicted Iu Wu, a defender for Hong Kong Sapling, to 12 months for his role in trying to fix a game between Hong Kong and Russian youth sides.
He was arrested when ICAC graft-busters raided the international match at Mong Kok Stadium. The court heard Iu was approached by a man in Shenzhen to fix the match.
In 2010, a mainlander was jailed for 10 months for trying to fix a First Division match between Happy Valley and Fourway Rangers.
Sutcliffe said combating corruption would be too big a task for the HKFA alone. "We will have to work and build a partnership with external agencies to battle this scourge. This is a major problem and a global issue and I'm very disappointed there are people out there who are trying to capitalise on the beautiful game," Sutcliffe said.
Calls for Hong Kong to align itself to leagues on the mainland were premature, he said. "We have no immediate plans to be part of the Chinese leagues. Our first priority is to be absolutely sure our Premier League is clean. We don't want to sully the game in Hong Kong while we are trying to develop it," he said.