Match-fixing may have killed Thai spikers' Olympic dream
Controversy erupted at the World Olympics Women's Volleyball Qualification Tournament in Tokyo on Sunday with the Japan-Serbia tie investigated for match-fixing after the shock result denied Thailand a debut Olympics place.Thailand finished the eight-team round-robin competition on a high note by defeating formidable Cuba 3-1 in a fierce battle. However, hosts Japan's shock surrender to European winners Serbia 3-2 in a late encounter resulted in Thailand's missing the bus for an historic first appearance in the Olympic Games.
Defending two-time world champions Russia, South Korea and Serbia finished first, second and third respectively to secure London berths. Japan, though beaten by Serbia, had a better points ratio than Thailand and joined the other three Games qualifiers as the best-ranked Asian side.
Shanrit Wongprasert, director of the Thailand Volleyball Association, reported the controversial Japan-Serbia result to the FIVB. The international governing body then decided to investigate the case, with its president Wei Jizhong confirming he was ready to travel to Bangkok for further discussions.
Meanwhile, Thai libero Piyanuch Pannoy said the players wept through Sunday night after realising their fate. Several of the Thai players appeared with red, swollen eyes when they converged in the hotel lobby to check out yesterday morning.
The Japanese team were slammed on social media sites. "Thailand were robbed of their Olympic ticket," wrote one Facebook user.
"It was a fixed match. The Japan team intended to relegate Thailand to fifth and dash their Olympic dreams. That's why Japan decided to surrender 2-3 to Serbia," said another message.
Social media was also abuzz with news that Japan had secured themselves an easy draw at the Olympics.
Had Japan beaten Serbia, Thailand would have claimed the Olympics ticket as best-ranked Asian team. Also, Japan would have been in a tough group along with defending Olympic champions Brazil, world No 1 USA, Asian champions China and European powerhouses Turkey. That could have been the reason for Japan to decide to lose against Serbia, speculated volleyball fans.
"We watched the match and we all realised there was something wrong with the Japan team," said Thai head coach Kiattipong Radchatagriengkai. "They played below their standard. However, I don't want to say out loud what happened, but I think anyone watching could see it. My team did their best in this tournament and I'm proud of them."
The players received hero's welcomes at Suvarnabhumi Airport yesterday. Hundreds of Thai fans and Thailand Volleyball Association executives led by president Somporn Chaibangyang offered the spikers bouquets and banners reading "You are happiness of Thai people", "You made Thailand proud", "Don't Give Up" and "We Love You".
"The Olympic Games remain our ultimate dream. It is our everything. We promise we won't give up and we will wait patiently for the dream to come true," said Thai captain Wilavan Apinyapong.