Cleared and ready to go

Phnom Penh were recently exonerated of match-fixing as they re-entered the AFC Cup, to the delight of the club 

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The sad reality of football not just in Southeast Asia – although there’s a fair argument to be made it’s the epicenter – but right across the globe is that every week there are matches being fixed.

Some at top levels, some lower, some for cash, some for results but regardless where, how or why it’s easily the biggest blight on the ‘beautiful game’ and one that those fighting the good fight have struggled to stamp out for decades.

This week though there was a rare piece of good news in that battle as the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the appeal of Cambodian club Phnom Penh Crown FC (PPCFC) over their expulsion from the AFC Cup due to issues around match-fixing.

Phnom Penh's home ground, RSN Stadium. Photo: Sarom Bunvath Photography

In a convoluted system of reaching the finals of that tournament which makes Christmas at Easter look like a workable concept the ‘qualifying stage’ is taking place at the moment (for a tournament that doesn’t begin until next February) in three nations across Asia where Phnom Penh were slated to be the Cambodian participant.

Instead, fellow Cambodian outfit Nagaworld are battling it out for a spot in the next round after the AFC declared Phnom Penh ineligible after four coaches from the club were banned by the Cambodian FA (FFC) following information provided by the club itself.

Late in the 2015 season, the club uncovered a plot by numerous players and officials to ‘manipulate’ matches with the aim of having then head coach Sam Schweingruber removed from his post.

While seven players and four coaches were disciplined by the club it was only the coaching staff who were banned by the FFC on the basis of ‘match manipulation’ and it was that process that the AFC were adhering to when they ruled the club could not take its place in the AFC Cup.

Sam Schweingruber addressing his team last year

When FourFourTwo exclusively revealed the story in June, the AFC argued that they were merely following their statutes around issues of match fixing.

“The AFC Statutes are very clear on this issue and states that a club that is found guilty of match-fixing will be refused entry to AFC competitions,” the AFC said in a statement at the time.

“The AFC has a zero-tolerance approach to match-fixing and this decision reflects that approach.”

The irony of course was that it was the club itself that was trying to fight this scourge by launching an investigation involving secret recordings amongst other things in order to undercover and weed out those who were working against the game’s best interests.

It was a commendable, brave and as Schweingruber has previously told FourFourTwo, dangerous fight against match-fixing, one that almost cost him his life.

So when the ban was enforced the club immediately appealed to CAS with the decision finally arriving this week that it must be overturned and the club granted entry to the next round of qualification in January.

It was an outcome that was welcomed by not just the club itself but indeed by everyone who is fighting against match-fixing throughout Southeast Asia, as the former coach exclusively told FourFourTwo.

“Hopefully this is a signal to others that the game can go in the right direction,” Schweingruber said.

“We want all of sport to played in a clean manner and all the people at our club have been fighting against this for many years, being active and vigilant to do whatever we can to help make the game cleaner and better.

“So, we feel that by winning this case we can help further strengthen that position and it shows that all small clubs have to stand up and fight against this problem.”

It’s believed that the AFC won’t look to appeal the judgement and PPCFC will be free to take their place in the next stage of the tournament but it’s yet to be determined just how that may work technically with all of the other nations already locked in.

One option that may unfold is to expand that stage of qualification to include clubs from other nations that win their domestic leagues this year as otherwise they may be excluded from continental action when the competition is revamped for the 2018 season.

It will be the first time that the club has participated in the AFC Cup and Schweingruber said everyone involved with PPCFC is delighted at the chance to test their mettle against the best teams from the region.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for our club to play on that stage and we’re extra delighted because we felt that we never did anything wrong in the first place and we couldn’t understand why we had been excluded but we’re proud now that justice has been served and look forward to get on with playing football.”

The full CAS judgement will be published in the next couple of weeks and hopefully it will further strengthen the brave stance taken by one of Cambodia’s leading clubs.

To be the face of the fight against manipulation and fixing, they should be applauded for that strong, consistent, approach.