Corruption and match-fixing threaten the very future of football in China

For beleaguered Chinese football followers, corruption scandals have become more common than on-field success for either the national team or the clubs in continental competition.

Yet the latest crackdown on the scourge of match-fixing and bribery might just be the start of a much-needed move towards transparency in Asia’s most blighted league.

Four senior officials within the Chinese Football Association (CFA), as well as individuals associated with the Chengdu Blades club, were detained in late 2009 and early 2010 as part of a clean-up initiated by the country’s premier, Hu Jintao.

That a figure of Hu’s stature should involve himself in the affairs of the country’s most popular sport highlights just how the game’s standing has slipped in China. Disillusion reigns supreme and football’s popularity is plummeting.

The national team – who have qualified only once for the World Cup finals, in 2002 – are currently ranked barely inside the top 100 on FIFA’s ladder and they have failed to reach the final phase of Asia’s qualifying tournament for each of the last two World Cups.

The performance of China’s Olympic team at the Beijing Games in 2008 was nothing short of an embarrassment; a black mark against the nation during an otherwise hugely successful event.

The country’s clubs, meanwhile, have made little impact in the Asian Champions League, with none of their four representatives progressing to the knockout phase of the competition last year.

On top of all that, the Chinese Super League has been blighted by corruption and innuendo for the best part of a decade.

The latest purge, however, threatens to go deep into the fabric of the sport in China and perhaps this time it will offer an opportunity for a fresh start.

That is certainly the hope of new CFA president Wei Di.

“We must correct the cheating and bribery while improving the management and organisation of the league,” Wei said at his first press conference as the head of the troubled body. “We should also look at the problems as a chance to start anew.”

Involvement in corruption
Previously the head of the Chinese Water Sports Association, Wei took over after CFA vice-presidents Nan Yong and Yang Yimin – along with Zhang Jianqiang, who is head of the referees’ department – were arrested in for their involvement in corruption.

Several days later, Lu Feng, the general manager of the Chinese Football League, disappeared from public view and was also believed to have been arrested. This followed the arrest at the end of 2009 of entrepreneur Tony Xu, the chairman of Chengdu Blades, and his deputy, You Kewei, over allegations of paying off opponents to secure promotion.

There have also been allegations of players paying to secure their place in the national squad.

Ironically, it was Nan who heralded the impact the crackdown would have following Xu’s arrest in December.

“If match-fixing and gambling remain rampant as now, Chinese soccer will be dead,” he said. “We are ready to pay a huge price to weed it out once and for all.”

In a country known for its harsh stance on corruption – government officials involved in major fraud have been handed the death penalty in the past – Nan could well be the one who pays the greatest price of all.

Wei has set his sights on improving the standard of youth development within the country – he claimed at his press conference that it was presently “primitive” – and, in doing so, he hopes to revitalise the game in China.

Whether fans have the patience to wait, especially after so many false dawns, could determine the fate of the game in a country that claims to have invented the sport.