Table tennis hero Cai Zhenhua seeks to rebuild reputation of soccer in China

Cai Zhenhua vows to improve the national team, which has come under heavy public criticism

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 2:59pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 January, 2014, 3:23am

A former world table tennis champion and sports administrator is to head soccer's governing body on the mainland in the latest effort to revive a sport that's called a national disgrace by many fans.

Cai Zhenhua, 53, the former top coach to the national table tennis team, was named president of the Chinese Football Association yesterday.

Cai is a former world table tennis champion and household name on the mainland. He vowed to improve the performance of the national soccer team in a sport that happens to be the favourite of President Xi Jinping's.

"We will never forget the 1-5 defeat to Thailand that the national team suffered last year. That day - June 15 - was a day of shame for Chinese soccer," Cai was quoted as saying, referring to a humiliating showing against its smaller Southeast Asian neighbour in Hefei last summer.

The defeat triggered widespread criticism of the team. Xinhua described the match as a humiliation and a tragedy for Chinese soccer on its Sina Weibo account, even before the final whistle had been blown.

Cai, who also serves as the vice-president of the government's State General Administration of Sports, takes over as president of the soccer association from 75-year-old Yuan Weimin, who had held the post since 1992.

Cai has overseen soccer matters in his role at the government organisation since 2010, but his new role is likely to him give him greater clout within the sport.

Cai was a highly successful table tennis player, winning four world championships in the 1980s. His accomplishments continued in a career as coach. He quickly built up the men's and women's teams, dominating the world championships and Olympic Games over the next two decades. He became the vice-president of the state sports administration in 2007.

China has a huge number of soccer fans. Xi is a noted enthusiast and has repeatedly called for improved performances from the national team. During a trip to Indonesia last year, he expressed the hope that China would qualify for the World Cup finals.

However, the sport has been plagued by corruption and an endless series of scandals.

Several top soccer officials, including two former head of the mainland's soccer leagues, have been jailed for accepting bribes and match-fixing.

Additional reporting by Associated Press