True blue fans curse soccer's money culture

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 May, 2010, 12:00am

Wu Guangjian has only been a Guangzhou fan for two turbulent years, but his fervour for the city's soccer team remains undimmed, even though it was relegated from the mainland's first division this year for match-fixing.

He even asked his wife to postpone a prenatal examination because it clashed with the team's first game this season. 'What I care most of all about is my local team, and I will follow them no matter whether it is up or down,' he said.

Liu Xiaowu was another fan who travelled to a proletarian, concrete pit of a stadium on Guangzhou's eastern outskirts early last month to see the local side kick off their 17th season.

A former deputy business manager of the side and one of those who helped bring the mainland's professional leagues into being in 1994, Liu, 55, was among 8,000 Guangzhou fans who filled the terraces of the lowly Zengcheng Stadium to see their side beat Beijing Institute of Technology 3-1 on the opening day of the Jia League second division competition.

It was a long way from the 30,000 ticket holders who crammed into the 20,000-seat Yuexiu Mountain Stadium on August 21, 1994, to see Guangzhou defeat eventual first division champions Dalian Wanda 3-2. Guangzhou went on to finish runners-up in that inaugural season.

But then again, Guangzhou had already fallen a long way before the new season even kicked off - demoted to the second division in February for match-fixing in 2006 that, ironically, still failed to clinch their promotion to the first division.

At least the rain stopped by the time the match kicked off at 3pm, meaning fans could dispense with their umbrellas and use their hands for clapping. And Liu said that, at last, he could just enjoy the game, feeling none of the anxiety or pressure he had felt during his tenure as deputy manager. He cheered when Guangzhou scored, smiled as he greeted local soccer officials and sports reporters and hugged some players he had worked with in the past.

As he watched the football being passed around on the pitch, he was reluctant to dwell on the rise and fall of Guangzhou soccer. But he was clear on one thing: that the obstacles that brought down Guangzhou and mainland soccer were still the sport's biggest challenge.

'Most people on the mainland, including fans, industry insiders and state leaders regarded soccer just as a popular sport but not a business, hence few people knew that one of the basic rules to create a successful soccer league and then a strong national team is to follow the market principle first,' he said. 'The biggest problem with mainland soccer is that many people still have the wrong idea [of relying on government].'

Founded in 1954, Guangzhou Football Club was the first mainland team to shake off state ownership, becoming a commercially run operation in 1993. It was sponsored by a health products manufacturer and known until 2000 as Guangzhou Apollo.

Soccer in Guangdong, the province of which Guangzhou is the capital, has a distinguished history, having contributed many players to national sides from the 1960s onwards. One of them, midfielder Rong Zhihang, who played for China 33 times from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, scoring eight international goals, was known as the 'Chinese Pele'.

President Hu Jintao said last year that Rong, with his exemplary character and elegant style on the pitch, should be a role model for all mainland players.

Zhang Tong , who started watching Guangzhou play in 1963, when he was only eight, said that the players in Rong's era - all sports administration employees - knew how to respect rivals, referees and fans and also displayed better attitudes than most of the current crop.

'The players of this generation think too much about money and, compared with European players, they do not care about their professional development too much,' he complained.

Soccer is a sport desperately in need of role models like Rong.

A crackdown on corruption, underground gambling and match-fixing in the mainland game, launched last year, led to the downfall of several high-ranking China Football Association officials and saw Guangzhou and another team, Chengdu Blades, demoted to the second division for match-fixing. Second division team Qingdao Hailifeng fared even worse, losing their licence and being fined 200,000 yuan (HK$227,000), also for match-fixing.

Guangzhou was named one of the mainland's two 'special soccer zones' in the 1980s - the other was Dalian. But the team has led a roller-coaster existence in the professional leagues.

They won only four of their 26 games in 1998 after losing many of their best players amid internal conflict and were relegated, five years after finishing runners-up. Guangzhou fought their way back into the top league by winning the second division title in 2007.

After the club spent hundreds of thousands of yuan in bribes to fix at least one match in 2006, many fans and analysts have questioned the basis of that success.

Before their match on August 19, 2006, managers from visiting team Shanxi Luhu offered to lose the game, in return for 200,000 yuan. With the support of the city's football association, Yang Xu, then deputy club manager of Guangzhou and later a deputy chairman of the association, paid the money to guarantee the win expected by city government. Guangzhou won the game 5-1, Shanxi's only goal coming from a 66th minute penalty.

Guangzhou were also rumoured to have paid to win another home game that season - a 3-2 victory over Zhejiang Lucheng on September 9 that was made more respectable by a 91st minute Zhejiang goal.

But when Yang was detained in October for bribery, becoming the first mainland football association official to be detained in the crackdown on soccer corruption, it was only over the Shanxi game.

Many soccer analysts say Yang was just a scapegoat, because somebody had to do the dirty work for the political goal and everyone in the league was doing the same thing.

Liu fondly remembers the enthusiasm of fans during the early years of professional soccer on the mainland, before the rot set in. In 1994, some fans in Chengdu, Sichuan , queued for a week to get tickets for one important match.

It wasn't long before smart businesspeople smelled the opportunity offered by a sport that attracted audiences in the millions. Liu said captains of industry carried suitcases full of cash as they sought out top players.

That success sowed the seeds for later destruction.

Liu said that at the very beginning, between 1994 and 1996, Guangzhou Apollo's annual expenses were less than 10 million yuan and the club could support itself. However, costs rose dramatically as more state-owned enterprises entered the field from 1997, forcing Guangzhou's sponsor to pour millions more into the club every year. The club's expenses rose from 7.22 million yuan in 1996 to 13 million in 1997 and more than 20 million in 2000.

The club's sponsor, Apollo, could not bear the pressure and quit.

Liu said that in Europe, a third of a soccer club's income came from ticket sales, another third from television broadcast charges and the rest from selling naming rights and jersey sponsorship.

'But on the mainland, no clubs have been profitable since the late 1990s because they can only make money from the third method and corporate sponsors just see it as an advertising opportunity,' he said.

Liu and other fans blame state-owned enterprises for the financial imbalance in mainland soccer. Government-backed giants, including tobacco manufacturers, power companies and even police forces, splashed out cash they easily borrowed from state-owned banks to buy the best players and coaches on the domestic market and overseas, inflating players' and coaches' salaries to levels that some private clubs could not afford.

Guangzhou Apollo captain Peng Weiguo , the national team's top midfielder, was headhunted by Qianwei Huandao, a club backed by the Ministry of Public Security, in 1998. Liu said Guangzhou could only afford to pay Peng 300,000 yuan a year while Qianwei offered the star 2.3 million yuan a season.

And Peng was only one of five national team players bought by Qianwei that season.

Peng Changying , a Guangzhou Apollo player from 1994 to 1998, said: 'They were super-strong; how could we, a private club, compete?'

Relegation saw many key players leave the team for the bigger money on offer in the top division.

Li Chengpeng , a prominent soccer columnist and one of three authors of the Inside Story of Chinese Soccer, said players' incomes in the second division were typically half those of players in the first division because it was more difficult to attract sponsors and audiences.

Some fans attribute Guangzhou's fall to the strong government backing enjoyed by rival teams.

One 38-year-old, who has been following the team for some two decades, said he believed that no mainland soccer club was clean and that Guangzhou had become a scapegoat in the crackdown on match-fixing and corruption because it lacked strong government support in Beijing, unlike the clubs backed by state-owned giants.

'We were chosen to be punished only because we do not have a close relationship with the senior officials in Beijing,' he said.

Zhang, the longtime fan, also pointed out that unlike most soccer clubs, Guangzhou received no support from local government in the 1990s.

He said the city's mayor at the time, Li Ziliu, declared that soccer should follow market rules and the government would not back it. 'But I think Guangzhou was wrong at that time,' Zhang said. 'Without government support, the only result possible for us was to lose.'

Losing meant relegation and playing in the second division meant smaller crowds and less money. Soccer insiders said that was one of the root causes of match-fixing in mainland soccer, with dissatisfied players betting on games and taking bribes to fix matches in order to supplement their pay packets.

Zhang watched the live broadcast of the fixed match with Shanxi in 2006 but did not notice anything amiss at the time. He said he later learned that only a few Shanxi players had been involved and it was almost impossible for ordinary fans to notice how they threw the game.

Guangzhou and Shanxi were found guilty of match-fixing late last year, after Wang Xin, Shanxi's manager in 2006, confessed to mainland police that the game was thrown. He had fled back to the mainland from Singapore, where he was also facing match-fixing charges.

His capture was a milestone in the mainland's crackdown on soccer corruption, leading to the arrest of at least a dozen club managers, coaches and football association officials.

While many fans believe government support is necessary for clubs to succeed, Li Chengpeng and other soccer analysts say that political influence is the main problem for mainland soccer, not the solution.

Li Chengpeng said the Guangzhou Football Association was motivated to pay other clubs for victories in 2006 because the Guangzhou city government had designated soccer one of two main sports to be upgraded between 2006 and 2010, with a view to making the Guangzhou team one of the best in the nation.

It's still not easy to escape government influence on the mainland and stop relying on government support.

China's new soccer supremo, Wei Di, revealed his blueprint for reviving the national soccer teams and saving the sport in March, saying that in a socialist country like China, people should find a path for soccer with distinct characteristics and not just slavishly copy Western models. He insisted that a state-backed system was the future for Chinese soccer.

Wei, formerly China's top water sports official, was parachuted in to run soccer after China Football Association vice-chairman Nan Yong and Yang Yimin were detained by police in January on suspicion of corruption. They have since been arrested.

Wu's daughter, Wu Sixuan, was born on April 28. He cancelled plans to watch another Guangzhou home game three days after her birth - a 1-0 victory over Anhui Jiufang - but already has big plans for her.

'Of course I will bring my daughter to the games in future,' he said. 'I hope she can become a fan of Guangzhou soccer when she grows up.'

Star billing

This is the salary commanded by top soccer players in China, and which critics say contributes to corruption: 2.3m yuan

Cost blow-out

This was the annual cost of running Guangzhou Apollo in 2000 - more than double its 1996 operating costs: 20m yuan