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(News Focus) Jeonbuk on verge of downfall amid bribery scandal

All Headlines 14:44 May 25, 2016

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, May 25 (Yonhap) -- Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have advanced to the quarterfinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League for the second straight year after beating Melbourne Victory 2-1 on Tuesday, but instead of excitement, a dark cloud is hanging over the South Korean football club.

With a bribery scandal surrounding one of their scouts, Jeonbuk are now facing what could be the worst crisis in their club's history which may ruin their achievements and future plans.

Before they entered the second leg of the AFC Champions League round of 16 tie, Jeonbuk were hit by the local prosecutors' announcement on Monday that the scout had been indicted on charges of bribing referees in the South Korean pro football league in 2013. According to the Busan District Prosecutors' Office, the scout, only identified by his surname Cha, allegedly bribed two referees in the K League Classic by handing each of them 1 million won (US$840) per match and asking them to make favorable calls for Jeonbuk.

After the announcement, Jeonbuk issued an apology and insisted the scout had acted on his own. But that likely won't be the end, as Jeonbuk may see the resignation of both its head coach and general manager in the near future.

After defeating Melbourne at home Tuesday, head coach Choi Kang-hee and general manager Lee Chul-geun both hinted at resignations, saying they will take responsibility for the bribery case.

"I've been staying with this club for more than 10 years and I've been running the team by putting trust first, whether it is for fans or the club," Choi said. "I think I should take the responsibility, instead of the club."

But Lee said, "I'm the one who takes charge of this club and I think it's not right for the head coach to take the responsibility. I'm also determined to take the responsibility."

If they both depart Jeonbuk, it will be the first such double resignation in K League history over a scandal of this type.

Choi and Lee have been the backbone of Jeonbuk's success in the 2000s. They have produced four domestic league titles and the 2006 AFC Champions League crown. Choi first came to Jeonbuk in 2005, two years after Lee arrived at the club as secretary-general.

But the bribery scandal has spoiled their legacy and raised doubts about Jeonbuk's achievements in the past. The scout, who is now suspended from duty, has been working for Jeonbuk since 2002.

At Tuesday's press conference, Choi insisted he didn't know such wrongdoings were happening because he was not with the club when such actions occurred. From December 2011 to June 2013, the 57-year-old was the head coach of the South Korean men's national team. He returned to Jeonbuk on June 28, 2013, just four days after he quit the national team job.

The prosecutors said one referee, 41, received money twice, while another referee, 36, accepted the bribes from the Jeonbuk scout three times during 2013, but didn't reveal in which matches they allegedly made favorable calls for Jeonbuk. The Jeonju-based club finished third in the league in 2013 before winning two consecutive titles in the following years.

Some fans are saying Jeonbuk's management must have known of the scout's bribery because he couldn't have taken the actions on his own. But Jeonbuk claimed they have never received any reports from the scout, and that he bribed the referees with the money out of his own pocket.

"Cha had a salary of more than 100 million won and, including bonuses, he received at least 120 million won a year," an official from Jeonbuk said. "In our own investigation, he said the referees were his junior colleagues in the past and he gave them the money to help cover their living expenses."

Depending on the court ruling, Jeonbuk can face point deductions, relegation to the second division, or even expulsion from the league. The K League office previously slapped Gyeongnam FC with a 10-point deduction and a 70 million won fine for the 2016 season after their club officials were convicted of bribery.

Most Jeonbuk fans seem to agree that some kind of penalty should be imposed on the club, but they're also worried about the team's future without Choi and Lee. Some supporters said that their resignation can't be a solution to this crisis.

"Don't kill the fans twice," a Jeonbuk supporter named Seo Kyung-tae wrote on the club's website on Wednesday. "We want both of you to put in your best efforts to make the team and the league better. That is how you take responsibility and apologize."

Those in the football industry, meanwhile, are concerned that such a scandal will spoil people's efforts to revive the pro football league after a 2011 match-fixing scandal. The K League banned more than 50 indicted players for life five years ago and has been trying to make the league clean since.

In the more immediate future, the scandal may have an adverse effect on Jeonbuk's performance. Gunning for their first continental crown since 2006 and their third straight domestic title, Jeonbuk signed a slew of local big names last winter to deepen their squad.

And they have done a great job with their squad rotation so far. In the AFC Champions League, Jeonbuk are in the quarterfinals after Tuesday's victory. In the K League Classic, they are in second place with six wins and four draws, tied with FC Seoul at 22 points but behind in goals scored, 21 to 18. Jeonbuk remain the only undefeated club in the top-tier competition.

Their players said the bribery scandal is weighing on their minds but they promised to deliver their utmost efforts till the end regardless of the scandal.

"We were at first embarrassed (when we heard about the case)," Jeonbuk goalkeeper and team captain Kwoun Sun-tae said Tuesday. "Despite the scandal, I was moved when our fans chanted the names of each player. I want to thank them for supporting us."

kdon@yna.co.kr
(END)

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