China must blow whistle on corruption in soccer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 January, 2010, 12:00am

Efforts by Beijing to rid soccer on the mainland of match-fixing and gambling have implicated the topmost administrators. At least a score more officials, players and club managers have also been netted over the past few months. The scandal has laid bare the extent to which corruption has permeated the game on the mainland and stripped it of credibility. But the crackdown also provides an opportunity to start putting things right.

Soccer is by far the biggest spectator sport in China, with one in every four people following games. They are not watching local teams, though; the game has been so tarnished by corruption that all eyes are on overseas competitions such as England's Premier League. The poor performance of the national team has become a source of embarrassment. Football fever struck the nation in 2002 when China's team took its place in the finals of the World Cup. Since then, results have been deeply disappointing.

China has the potential to become one of the leading soccer-playing nations, but not while the domestic game is plagued by graft and scandal. Integrity, honesty and basic sportsmanship must be instilled throughout the sport. Only then will confidence be restored among fans and investors' interest sparked. The sacking and taking in for questioning of the head of the party-controlled Chinese Football Association, Nan Yong , fellow vice-chairman Yang Yimin and former referees chief Zhang Jianqiang , would seem to be striking at the heart of the problem. But it is only a start. A thorough shake-up is needed. The direct involvement of the government in the sport, however, puts China at a disadvantage. The code of the sport's world governing body, Fifa, stipulates that independent national organisations and dedicated professionals should be in charge. This is the best way to develop the grass-roots-up approach that will send national teams on winning ways.

Our dream is that China develops a vibrant football league that Hong Kong can participate in. This could be a powerful unifying force, allowing fans to enjoy games of a high standard. But it can't happen unless the mainland has clean, well-run competitions.