ICAC busts First Division match-fixing ring

Happy Valley

23 individuals, 12 of whom are believed to be players and coaches, have been arrested in what the ICAC calls the ‘largest match-fixing case in recent years’. Here’s what we know so far:

Another match-fixing scandal has rocked Hong Kong football.

On Tuesday afternoon, the ICAC announced at a press conference that 23 individuals, including 22 men and one woman, have been arrested in connection with an investigation into illegal offshore gambling, match-fixing, and corruption. Of those arrested, 11 are players, one is a coach, while others are suspected of being intermediaries in the facilitation of match-fixing.

All of the individuals are between 25 to 36 years of age.

The operation, code named ‘Emerald Green’, was described by ICAC investigator Kate Cheuk as the “largest match-fixing case in recent years”, and involved the use of 100 ICAC officers. During the operation, the anti-corruption agency searched various places and interviewed several players.

The ICAC’s investigation focused on the conduct of one club in particular, although Cheuk declined to identify the club citing that the investigation was ongoing. The only details provided were that the club participated in the First Division, and over the 26-match season, the club lost or drew 18 of their matches. Both Citizen and Happy Valley meet the description, though sources have revealed to several media outlets that it is the latter who are under investigation.

What is being alleged?

The ICAC had received complaints from several players alleging players at one particular club of corruption. The agency then began an investigation lasting over a year and discovered that half the club’s squad were involved in suspicious activity.

According to Cheuk, players, coaches and intermediaries would work together to find the club’s matches on offshore betting sites and select the sites where they could get the best odds. As betting on domestic matches is illegal for Hong Kong citizens, it would be the job of intermediaries to arrange for the use of foreign credit cards to place bets.

Players would receive several thousand or up to ten thousand dollars in bribes per match, depending on well they manipulated the results. In addition, Cheuk said that the players would place heavy bets on their own matches in order to double their winnings. As the investigation was ongoing, she stated that the total amount of bribes that were paid remains unknown.

The investigation centred on the alleged club’s performances over the 2022-23 season, however Cheuk did not preclude the possibility that the club’s performances over previous seasons would be scrutinized as the investigation continues.

ICAC investigators Allen Leung (left), Kenny Lau (centre) and Kate Cheuk (right) (Credit: ICAC)

How was match-fixing conducted?

According to ICAC investigator Allen Leung, the ringleaders of the match-fixing scheme would meet before matches with the players and coaches involved to determine a desired result and discuss how to fix the match.

In some cases, players would deliberately play below their capabilities in order lose to clubs who were weaker. In other cases, the players would conspire to play poorly at certain moments in order to achieve a predetermined scoreline based on how they bet.

During matches, undercover officers noticed that the intermediaries were often present at the club’s matches. The players, coaches, and intermediaries would use inconspicuous means to communicate with each other, including exaggerated gestures, pulling socks up or down, or taking off or putting on a hood. The ICAC believes that the intermediaries would monitor betting sites for real-time odds and relay signals to the players to adjust their tactics.

Although match-fixing can take place at any time during the course of a match, Happy Valley curiously conceded 27 goals in the 75th minute or beyond this season – the most of any club in the First Division. They also conceded four own goals this season, tied for first in the league.

(Credit: Transfermarkt)

Who has been arrested?

While several other clubs have matches to make up due to postponements, Happy Valley played their final match on Sunday. The ICAC began making arrests on Monday but Cheuk declined to name those individuals due to privacy reasons.

However, reporters who were camped outside the ICAC’s headquarters in North Point saw the following players and coaches leaving the campus on Tuesday night:

  • Chill Chiu – head coach of Happy Valley since 2021
  • Luciano – former Happy Valley player from 2019 to 2021, who later sued the club over unpaid salary
  • Yeung Chi-lun – Happy Valley defender and captain who made 24 appearances this season
  • Brian Fok – Happy Valley defender who made 24 appearances this season
  • Lui Man-tik – Happy Valley midfielder who made 25 appearances this season
  • Pang Chiu-yin – Happy Valley midfielder who made 22 appearances this season
  • Lai Hau-hei – Happy Valley midfielder who made 18 appearances this season
  • Keung Wing-kwong – Happy Valley defender who made 17 appearances this season
  • Ching Man-chun – Happy Valley goalkeeper who made 18 appearances this season
  • Ivan Wong Ho-ching – Happy Valley defender who made nine appearances this season
  • Chan Ho-fung – Happy Valley striker who made seven appearances this season

Offside cannot verify whether the individuals listed above were charged or whether they were only brought in for questioning.

Cheuk stated that the ICAC believes the club’s management are “victims” and were not culpable in match-fixing. She also confirmed that no referees or triad members were currently under investigation, although she did not rule out the possibility that more individuals would be charged in the future.

Happy Valley head coach Chill Chiu (Credit: Happy Valley)

What has been the reaction from the footballing community?

Naturally, reporters all wanted to get the reaction of HKFA chairman Pui Kwan-kay, who is also chairman of Happy Valley.

“I’ve often said that if the weeds can’t be eradicated, then with a spring breeze, they’ll regrow again,” he said, noting that the HKFA holds regular anti-match fixing seminars for the players. “If we can’t nip the problem in the bud, if we can’t uncover the masterminds (behind match-fixing), then lower division players will continue to be lured into illegal activities.

“Of course, what has happened is not good and I am saddened by it. But the fact that it has come to light is not necessarily a bad thing because the ICAC were able to take action. We will continue to co-operate with law enforcement to completely eradicate match-fixing rings.”

Happy Valley player Brian Fok (Credit: Davidwhy)

Ho Shun-yin, Director of Football at Resources Capital, expressed disappointment over the incident. “Why does this kind of thing keep happening?” he asked. “It happens time and again, and for only a few thousand dollars. It’s not worth it.”

Former Hong Kong captain and current Eastern District player, Chan Wai-ho, said that the lower divisions were more susceptible to match-fixing since less people pay attention. “In the Premier League, everyone is a professional. If anyone is caught, then that’s the end of their career, so the benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost. There are fans at every match and nearly every match is broadcast, so it’s harder to fix matches when more people are watching.

“In the amateur leagues, there are fewer people in attendance and there aren’t many people who film the matches, so it’s easier for it to happen in the lower divisions and in the Reserve League. It’s not surprising that it will happen more easily.

“I know some of the players who are implicated, but they have stable careers and don’t need the money. First Division players are paid $1,000-1,500 per match in appearance fees and travel expenses but the players aren’t playing to make a living. The bribes aren’t enough to live off of, so the temptation is not great in that regard. My guess is that (those involved) have some form of gambling addiction.”

Previous match-fixing incidents

While the 23 people arrested represent the highest total in connection to any match-fixing scandal in local football history, it is neither the first scandal of its kind nor the first involving Happy Valley.

In April 2009, a match between Happy Valley and Tuen Mun Progoal was believed to have been fixed. With the score level at 1-1, Progoal proceeded to concede four goals in the final seven minutes, leading the club’s captain Chau Wai-ming to yell, “How many goals do you want, just say it! Say it!” Progoal were later expelled from the First Division in November 2009 after they defaulted on insurance payments.

In October 2009, former Happy Valley captain Yu Yang offered to bribe Rangers player Jean-Jacques Kilama if the latter were to foul Yu in the penalty area or allow him to score in another manner during an upcoming match. Kilama refused and reported the incident to the ICAC. As a result, five Happy Valley players were arrested in May 2010 and Yu later served ten months in jail.

In January 2014, ICAC officers entered Happy Valley’s dressing room after the club lost 5-0 to Sun Hei. Five players and one coach were arrested on suspicion of match-fixing. One of those arrested was Croatian import Saša Mus, who was later sentenced to 12 months in jail for his involvement. Happy Valley were consequently expelled from the First Division.

In the most recent match-fixing case, five former Pegasus players were taken in for questioning by the ICAC in October 2016 over possible match-fixing. Of those, only former Hong Kong Footballer of the Year, Lee Wai-lim, was charged with crimes. He pled guilty in January 2019 to accepting an advantage and conspiracy to defraud, and served 180 hours of community service.

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