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Was the Jeonbuk Punishment Correct?

Was the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors Bribery Punishment Correct?
(Photo Credit: Howard Cheng)
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were finally punished for the bribery of referees on Friday, receiving a deduction of nine points with immediate effect in addition to a fine of 100 Million South Korean Won. I take a look at some of the immediate fall out and reaction to this ruling, in addition to reasons why the committee settled on this amount.

I can already feel the ire just upon reading that title, but the last twenty-four hours since the announcement of Jeonbuk’s punishment for bribing referees has seen an overwhelming range of negative responses, with most feeling that the reigning champions and conglomerate backed club have escaped lightly due to a mix of their status in the game and the league governing body’s ineptitude.

In the spirit of full disclosure, as a Jeonbuk fan I am a combination of being selfishly relieved and quite embarrassed by the outcome. I personally thought the calls for relegation and disbandment of the club were hyperbolic, but I did agree a points deduction of around fifteen points (three points per incident) and fine would be apt, especially if administered at the start of next season when it would have some effect on proceedings. 

What I intend to do is go through a number of points raised by commenters and address them, not in a bid to justify what I even consider a light punishment, but to attempt an understanding on how this decision was reached by the disciplinary committee.

The Gyeongnam Precedent

Let’s begin with the previous instance referred to throughout this whole investigation. As mentioned, the two convicted referees were first indicted when Gyeongnam were under investigation for making payments to match officials. The club was found guilty and subsequently docked ten points at the start of this season in addition to receiving a 70 Million Won fine after their club executives were also convicted. 

As Jeonbuk were part of the same investigation, the same application of punishment has applied. Jeonbuk were found to have not made as many payments to the referees (five), in addition to no found involvement from the club executives, but due to their stature in the game were fined more. Therefore the club was deducted nine points immediately and told to pay 100 Million Won. Perhaps the fine should have been more given Jeonbuk’s financial clout, but the points deduction is consistent and justifiable.

The K-League had arguably made it impossible to punish Jeonbuk more due to leniency shown in punishing Gyeongnam for a stronger crime. 

Why Not Next Season?

This is where the anger starts to exacerbate. Nine points already looks considerably weaker, even if deemed “fair” based on precedent. However, by applying it immediately, with Jeonbuk initially fourteen points clear of second place, the league’s governing body has effectively created a win-win situation for the club as FC Seoul cannot truly win the league title on merit alone. Furthermore, if Jeonbuk hold onto first place they will have won it despite a points deduction.

I believe there are a number of reasons for this. First, let me refer back to the precedent set by Gyeongnam above. The punishment applied to them at the start of this season, but this is because their hearing results came at the close of 2015. Therefore, the punishment was applied as soon as possible (i.e. the following season). In this sense, the committee has acted consistently, although naively. Nine points would have been far more palatable if issued either earlier in this season, or at the beginning of next. By issuing it now, it most likely will have no effect on the club.

Jeonbuk also proved to be uncooperative with the investigation, delaying the handing over of documents and maintaining the stance this act was of an individual nature. It may still very well have been so, but by employing Mr. Cha, Jeonbuk also hold some responsibility by extension. If these had been handed over sooner, perhaps the punishment could have been awarded much earlier in the season when it might have meant something.

The league body has also not helped itself by delaying the hearing due to the AFC Quarter Finals, with them not wanting to disrupt a Korean team’s preparation ahead of such important fixtures. With a K-League team now guaranteed to be in the final, the hearing was able to take place.

Then there is the argument as to why it was not implemented at the start of next season. Part of me feels that the league wanted this case resolved as quickly as possible, so it would not cast unresolved doubt on this particular season. Having also taken a long time to come to a decision, they perhaps wanted to demonstrate that something was being done. Furthermore, the K-League intends to enforce a set of tougher, zero-tolerance anti-corruption measures for the start of the 2017 season. Announcing such measures whilst simultaneously also failing to apply them to a team sitting at minus 9 points would not have looked good for a governing body in desperate need of being taken seriously. Applying these new laws to a team who committed the crimes three years previous would also have been harsh.

Jeonbuk Did Not Match-Fix

Now in my mind, and most likely your mind, bribing referees amounts to attempting to fix a match. However, legally speaking, there was no evidence found that Jeonbuk wanted a particular result or scoreline from these payments, only favourable decisions. It is splitting hairs, but it is also an important detail that must be noted, especially in a country with such strict libel laws. 

Because of this technicality, the committee did not punish Jeonbuk to the full extent, with head of the committee Cho Nam-don stating "If we found that the matches were fixed, the punishment on Jeonbuk would have been more severe"

What Will Happen to Jeonbuk’s Champion’s League place?

Article 73.6 of the AFC Statutes that a team attempting to arranging or influence the outcome of the match at national or international level can be refused admission to AFC competition with immediate effect. Whilst Jeonbuk do not fall under the "arranging" category due to not being found guilty of match-fixing, they most likely do fall into the category of influencing the outcome. They key word in the ruling here is "can", which suggests it will be at the AFC's discretion.

As we have seen with the K-League, no competition wishes to vote for its own demise, especially in the instance where it's possible champions will not be able to partake the following season. That said, the rule does look like they will have to discuss Jeonbuk's involvement and admission next season and therefore this remains the only outcome unresolved from Jeonbuk's scandal.

At present the AFC are yet to comment on the punishment issued to Jeonbuk by the K-League.

Finally, the Incidents Happened in 2013

Despite what has circulated on social media, Jeonbuk committed all their offences in 2013, as reported by all reputable news outlets and official statements. I would normally not address incorrect tweets in an article, but due to the remarks in my feed demanding Jeonbuk must have their 2014 title rescinded, I feel it must be addressed. There were no incidents in 2014 reported, although it was investigated as part of procedure, and therefore there is no reason to think Jeonbuk cheated for a league title.

Concluding Remarks

This article is not suppose to convince you the decision is correct, merely just attempt to explain why such a punishment was dealt. To me, the whole thing leaves a bad taste in the mouth but I can see what the league body was trying to attempt. Unfortunately, their unassertive approach to dealing out the punishment has led to something that hardly even amounts to a slap on the wrist and it is fully understandable why so many are annoyed about this outcome. 

The committee had an opportunity to make an example of Jeonbuk to deter future offenders, but opted to stick to precedent. I like to think the ideal outcome would have been somewhere in the middle, with a points deduction next season strong enough to make winning the title a challenge and set an example, but not so overblown that the punishment exceeds a lesser scale crime than that committed by Gyeongnam.

While there will still be many understandably angry at Jeonbuk, I do feel that they have been dealt with consistently and “fairly” even if the majority disagree with the actual punishment itself. I do think punishing them earlier or at the start of next season though would have been much easier for fans to stomach, and I feel the K-League has dropped the ball in this regard. I do expect to continue to see protesters at future Jeonbuk matches, but I also hope that those protesting now concentrate their anger towards those who have dealt these punishments and force their hand into ensuring future offences are punished according to the more stringent laws set to be enacted.

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