Soccer scandals resonate beyond world of sport
Looking for evidence of how soccer is played differently on the mainland? Then the first interview by new soccer chief Wei Di is worth reading.
'I had never thought of setting foot in soccer,' Wei, a 54-year-old former national rowing and kayaking official, told Sina.com early this month, a week after he was sworn in as the head of the sports administration's Soccer Management Centre. 'But it's my responsibility to accept the call of duty from 'the organisation'. You don't have an excuse to avoid it.'
'The organisation' is a widely used euphemism on the mainland referring to the ruling Communist Party and the authorities in general.
Wei was summoned to the rescue on short notice late last month after three former top mainland soccer officials were detained on unspecified corruption charges. They included Nan Yong, the Soccer Management Centre chief who doubled as effective head of the Chinese Football Association, a puppet non-governmental association that holds China's seat on soccer's international ruling body Fifa. The details of their alleged wrongdoings remain under wraps, but it is widely believed their fall from grace was linked to a wider crackdown on match-fixing and illicit soccer gambling that has snared dozens of coaches, officials and players since last autumn.
Corruption is no stranger in big-ticket sports businesses around the world, given the murky way they are run. In the US, Salt Lake City bidders bought votes that won it the right to host the 2002 Winter Olympics; in Brazil, a five-time soccer World Cup winner, perennial embezzlement charges have dogged Ricardo Teixeira's two decades as president of the Brazilian Football Confederation; and even the International Olympic Committee, the world's highest sports governing body, is sullied, every once in a while, by accusations of hereditary rule and the brazen soliciting of bribes.
But observers say the corruption permeating the 'beautiful game' on the mainland reflects a broader culture of mixing administrative power and commercial interests that has soured many other aspects of governance. 'The organisation' is the problem, rather than solution, they argue. Similarly, the ferocious backlash stirred up by the soccer mess resonates far beyond the world of sport.
'In many foreign countries, corruption in sports is a sports issue alone,' said Jin Shan, a sports culture researcher with Beijing Municipal Academy of Social Sciences. 'Here in China, people tend to put it in a wider perspective of social ills. Look at other heavily corrupt sectors of governance and then the malaise in the sports sector is almost forgivable. They are just getting peanuts.'
Chen Yiming, a former soccer coach who has managed several top-flight mainland teams, told Guangdong TV he suffered from extortion in the 1990s at the hands of Yang Yimin , a deputy CFA chairman who was detained along with Nan late last month.
'If a club didn't pay, your players would fail the mandatory pre-season physical tests that decided whether he would be eligible to play in the league that season,' Chen said.
Before 2001, every professional soccer player on the mainland had to earn his licence to play at a mandatory, pre-season fitness test. The practice was introduced in the name of improving players' stamina but the dubious science behind it was questioned by most professionals. Chen said it turned into a money spinner for officials led by Yang.
'And it was not the only trick under the table,' Chen said. 'Everything bore a price tag if you wanted to survive in the domestic league.'
A players' agent who managed several well-known Chinese internationals agreed that the corruption was widespread: clubs paid CFA referee supervisors to arrange 'preferred' referees to their matches; national team fringe players who wanted to secure international caps to put a gloss on their resumes paid national officials to ensure an appearance for Team China; middlemen colluded with CFA business representatives to siphon off domestic league sponsorship money into their own pockets; and underground gambling rings paid players to throw games.
'Paying your way up is part and parcel of the game,' the agent said. 'But isn't it the same across other sectors in today's China?'
The only difference is the consequences are more conspicuous in soccer. Although it is one of the most popular sports in China, the national team has made the World Cup finals only once, in 2002, when it advanced with ease, mainly thanks to a favourable draw in the Asian qualifiers.
Since then, the Chinese Super League, the top domestic league, has plunged from boom to near infamy, crippled by waves of match-fixing scandals that escaped serious investigation. Between 1999 and 2002, Pepsi reportedly splashed out more than US$10 million a year for the naming rights of the top-flight series. The 2007 CSL title sponsorship, however, cost mainland brewer Kingway only around 38 million yuan (HK$43.22 million), less than half the price tag at the turn of the century.
Riddled by scandal and poor play, Chinese soccer has become a convenient target of public anger and satire. The relatively relaxed censorship on sports news also gave rise to a free-for-all against soccer, which saw its reputation further deteriorate.
'Many critics actually don't know what they are talking about,' said Ma Dexing, a sports writer with the widely circulated tri-weekly Titan Sports newspaper. 'Soccer has become an apparent whipping boy for today's social ills in China. People vent their anger through soccer about some non-sport troubles, like corruption and the lack of credibility of officialdom. It's a tragedy for Chinese soccer.'
The nation's leaders appear to recognise the impact soccer can have.
Senior leaders including President Hu Jintao and heir apparent Xi Jinping raised eyebrows by declaring their ambitions to overhaul the sport in recent months.
'We've got to resolve to do something to raise [the game], but this is going to take a long time,' Xi, a keen soccer fan, said in November.
The rare statements, along with warnings of a clean-up campaign by Liu Yandong, a state councillor whose portfolio covers sports and culture, were believed to be the harbinger of the crackdown.
It was not the first time Chinese leaders have focused on soccer. The Politburo Standing Committee devoted a session to soccer after the national team's World Cup finals appearance in 2002, according to the memoirs of former sports minister Yuan Wenmin . 'The clean-up of soccer has long been on the agenda but no one was willing to make a move before the Olympics,' said one person close to Yuan.
In fact, the CFA launched a similar crackdown on match-fixing in 2002, but dithered on any meaningful punishment for those caught with their pants down - except for handing Gong Jianping , a referee who admitted to receiving 100,000 yuan in bribes, to prosecutors. Gong was later sentenced to 10 years in prison.
'It was a wasted opportunity,' said Chen Peide, a former sports official in Zhejiang, who authored a book on corruption in Chinese soccer. 'It was a political decision to let go of a lot of culprits. No one was willing to risk the stability of Chinese sports before the Beijing Olympics.'
This time, there seems little to stand in the way of a real clean-up. But not everyone is optimistic.
'I haven't seen any clue of profound change in the system, like the separation of power and business [in soccer],' said Li Chengpeng, the author of Chinese Soccer Insight. 'Removing several corrupt officials without touching upon the core of the problem will not help build up a healthy sport.'
Amount Pepsi paid from 1999 to 2002 per year, in US dollars, for Chinese Super League title sponsorship: $10m