Fixing claims have forever tainted Hong Kong soccer

No matter the results of investigations into alleged match-fixing, the spectre of suspicion will be impossible to remove

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 7:35pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 January, 2014, 7:35pm

Derek Currie was happy and sad last week. The former legend of the local game was celebrating his mum's 100th birthday in Glasgow - she received a signed birthday card from the Queen - when he heard the news that Eusebio had died.

Currie, fondly known as "Jesus" by the Hong Kong public for his long flowing locks, played against the Portugal great when he and Benfica made a visit to town in 1973. Benfica had hammered the Hong Kong national team 11-0 and Currie watched the game as a guest commentator for RTHK.

Asked by his fellow commentator what he would do a few days later when he would lead a League XI to meet Eusebio and his band of magicians, Currie replied "I'm heading for Kai Tak to catch the first flight out of Hong Kong". Of, course, he was only joking.

It was perhaps more than a coincidence that both clubs were sponsored by mainland interests
Alvin Sallay

Currie and the local League XI were 3-0 down at half-time, but ended the match 3-1 with "Jesus" scoring the only goal against the Portuguese giants. Currie was elated at having played against Eusebio, whom he rated as "arguably one of the greatest forwards ever, alongside Pele".

His death plunged world football into mourning. It was a black and mournful week in Hong Kong too, but for a different reason with two clubs in the top flight coming under the scrutiny of the ICAC for match-fixing.

Tuen Mun and Happy Valley were both suspected of fixing the results of games. In scenes straight out of a Hollywood script, the graft-busters swooped on a Happy Valley game and marched more than 10 people, including players and officials, into custody.

Earlier, Tuen Mun deregistered 11 players following a 2-1 loss to Yokohama FC on December 22 where one of their own defenders, Li Ming, headed the ball into his own net.

It was perhaps more than a coincidence that both clubs were sponsored by mainland interests. This troubling fact has once again highlighted the blight of match-fixing and corruption that lies beneath the surface in Chinese football.

This was not the start to 2014 the Hong Kong Football Association wanted. The local game is on the verge of becoming fully professional with all clubs set to meet Asian Football Confederation standards.

The whiff of corruption will now taint Hong Kong football. The Asian governing body recently had offered to include Hong Kong clubs in its top competition, the Asian Champions League. With all this happening in the background, the HKFA needs a massive corruption scandal like a hole in the head.

Currie, who played when the Hong Kong fans turned up in their tens of thousands to watch games, mourned the lowering of ethical standards.

"The integrity of football has to be upheld and there is no place in the sport for match-fixing if any parties are found guilty. Footballers always have a choice and those who discredit the game are not only doing a disservice to themselves, but also to the paying public," Currie said.

As a player, Currie was wholly committed and he says he can "think of nothing lower in professional football than a player not giving 100 per cent on the playing field and to the fans".

Sadly we live in different times. The arrival of television has changed the face of the game by making it more prone to match-fixing. A punter in India can have a flutter on a game played in the English Premier League or the Bundesliga.

A common perception is that results are arranged by shady men in Dubai and Singapore who at the press of an SMS can command clubs to lose a match.

China was well-known for its corrupt soccer system. Now it seems Hong Kong too has been entangled in this same warped world.

While the ICAC investigation takes its own course, the HKFA must also be seen to act and the decision to set up an ad-hoc committee chaired by its independent director Stephen Yau How-boa to look into these worrying matters is a first step. Postponing all matches involving Tuen Mun and Happy Valley is also the right move.

But the damage done by these revelations - whether true or false - will be hard to patch up. The Hong Kong public, as well as the world at large, has reason to believe the game is tainted. There were always suspicions - this not being an isolated case - that local matches were fixed, and they appear to have been well-founded.