Mainland bosses feeling the heat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 November, 2009, 12:00am

Facing the wrath of the government over their failure to create a World Cup team, China's soccer chiefs are proposing drastic measures to overhaul the mainland's most popular game.

In the latest move to salvage its reputation, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) said it was considering cutting the 16-team Chinese Super League to 12 to allow more time for training the underachieving national side.

The plan comes as China suffers a crisis in sporting confidence, despite its Olympic gold-medal glory, as it watches its neighbours - Japan, South Korea and North Korea - and the rest of the world prepare for next year's World Cup in South Africa.

Failure to reach the world's biggest sporting event has seen President Hu Jintao and other leadership officials call for an overhaul of the game, which is riddled with corruption and incompetence.

As revealed in a two-part series starting today, mainland soccer has reached rock bottom and become a source of humiliation and embarrassment - not just to the 400 million fans, but also the government, which uses sport in its promotion of soft power.

The gold-medal powerhouse is behind minnows Cape Verde Islands in the Fifa rankings, placed at 102.

Admitting that it was feeling the public's anger, the government launched a wide-ranging police investigation this month.

Several high-ranking soccer officials and coaches have been arrested for corruption - the 'dark force' that most blame for the sport's shambolic state.

The normally passive CFA was forced to break its customary wall of silence to declare its support for 'the crackdown' - even though many of its members are blamed for soccer's perpetual failure.

Yet the most import part of any reform plan - the development of amateur grass roots - still remains a low priority for officials.

They are more preoccupied with commercialism and instant success by whatever means - and this approach is robbing generations of players and fans their chance to star on the world stage.

'The latest crackdown comes on the back of decades of corruption that has become ingrained in the game in China. It would be surprising if this anti-corruption campaign does more than paper over the cracks at professional level,' said Rowan Simons, who has been promoting the development of amateur soccer on the mainland for more than 20 years.

The CFA's plan to trim the top-flight league was also attacked by critics, who said such a move would cause further chaos, with the four clubs asked to leave the CSL for a division two berth likely to withdraw from all competition in protest.

Moreover, any such plan could see a further rise in match-fixing as the competition increases among teams battling to survive in the more lucrative top-flight league, which recently reported growing from sponsorship revenue.

The 2009 season was worth an estimated 150 million yuan (HK$170million) and the combined audience for matches was 160 million people, said the CSL. Yet there is no evidence of any of the money being pumped back into the development of soccer in communities, which is the model in successful nations.