Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chinese controversy rekindles bizarre memories

Over the last few days, much more has come to light about the match fixing scandal in China with two clubs relegated from the Chinese Super League and one second division side banned.

The story involving Qingdao - and their desperate attempts to score in their own net - brings to mind the bizarre happenings at the Tiger Cup in 1998, when Indonesia and Thailand tried to lose to one another thanks to the poor handling of the tournament by the ASEAN Football Federation.

Everyone remembers how the story ended, with Indonesia's Mursyid Effendi scoring with what would have been a fine strike had it been at the other end to hand Thailand all three points in their final group encounter in the Vietnam-based tournament.

But had the AFF not allowed local politics to get in the way in the first place, the issue would never have occurred. That was because some bright spark decided to pander to the wishes of the Vietnamese government and allow football convention to be turned on its head. Normally, when a team wins its group in a round-robin tournament that ultimately is decided by several knockout rounds, they have the advantage of being allowed to stay in the venue in which they have played all of their previous games. The reward for winning the group is a minimum of fuss and hassle before the next round.

However, local political sensitivities were such that the Vietnam Football Federation - under pressure from the government - wanted to ensure Vietnam played at least one game in Ho Chi Minh City. Having been drawn to play their group matches in Hanoi that would normally have meant Vietnam would have to finish second to do so. So the rules were changed, with the winners of each group required to travel to play the runners-up. Had everything panned out as hoped, Vietnam would win Group A and travel to Ho Chi Minh City to face off against the runners-up in Group B.

Singapore, though, didn't play ball and - inconveniently for the organisers - won the group. That mean Vietnam would stay in Hanoi, with the backing of a extremely lively home town crowd behind them. Neither Thailand nor Indonesia - who were both already through before meeting in the final round of matches - relished the prospect. So both set out to lose so they would finish second in the group and would entertain a Singapore side believed to be the easier opponents.

The first half was a farce with neither team doing much to warrant their presence on the pitch so, at halftime, the captains and coaches were called together by the match commissioner, who issued a stern warning to all about the manner in which the game was developing. Local fans who had paid good money for their tickets, meanwhile, were baying for blood.

The second half started off in markedly different fashion as both teams looked like they had decided to put the issue behind them and play for the win...but that was until the final 10 minutes when the defences of both teams ended up defending the opposing team's goal.

It was only a matter of time before one team scored - with Thai defenders working in front of the Indonesian goalkeeper (and vice versa at the other end!), Effendi thumped the ball home from the edge of the penalty area and ran off to celebrate as if he had just scored the winner in the World Cup final! Truly bizarre stuff...

So Thailand won and travelled to meet the Vietnamese, who prevailed to set up a final showdown in Hanoi with Singapore, who had defeated the Indonesians. Justice had been done on the field while off the pitch fines and bans were handed to Thailand, Indonesia and Effendi, who was given a lifetime ban by FIFA from the game (although he was back playing again several years later once the dust had settled and the uproar had died down).

Qingdao's behaviour doesn't quite much those dubious heights but at least the Thai and Indonesians were acting in the way they did in a misguided attempt to improve their team's chances of winning the tournament. At Qingdao, it was all about lining the chairman's pockets!

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