As courts in the northeastern province of Liaoning delivered verdicts yesterday against former high-ranking soccer officials and star players, a three-year campaign to purge corruption from the sport appeared to be finally nearing its endgame.
Two former bosses of the Chinese Football Administrative Centre (CFAC), Xie Yalong and his successor, Nan Yong , were both sentenced to 10? years in jail and ordered to pay 200,000 yuan (HK$245,000) in fines for taking bribes.
Additionally, four national team players, including Qi Hong and Shen Si , key players in the mainland's only trip to the World Cup finals, in 2002, received up to six years in jail for match-fixing.
They joined several peers who were previously convicted of similar crimes.
Xinhua reported that the nationwide crackdown on soccer corruption started in 2009 and has resulted in 56 high-level soccer officials, top players, famous referees and club officials receiving prison sentences. An earlier Xinhua story said that more than 200 people had been arrested.
'It's more important that authorities loosen their control on professional soccer in the future and play a simple supervisory role,' said Wu Celi , co-writer of Inside Chinese Soccer.
Wu also said he didn't think the campaign was finished, noting that, under the current system, the CFAC runs the professional leagues while also supervising itself, which he said was the main reason corruption existed in the sport.
'The corruption in soccer mirrors the general corruption problems elsewhere in China,' Wu said. 'Authorities are keen on controlling the commercialised industry, and that has resulted in several cases of flagrant corruption.'
The catalyst for the corruption crackdown came in 2007, when an probe into match-fixing in Singapore led investigators back to the mainland. More than 20 people were arrested, including a referee previously considered the game's most honest and who was known as the 'golden whistle' for his impartiality.
The crackdown officially began less than a month after Vice-President Xi Jinping made a promise during a trip to Germany in 2009 to clean up and revive Chinese soccer. Zhong Guojian, then the general manager of the Guangdong Eagles, was arrested soon after Xi's return.
'Everything is about politics in China, including soccer,' said a senior sports editor with the official CCTV broadcaster, who declined to be named. 'If leaders love the game, then everyone starts to promote it as a political assignment.'
After 11 years away from the game, Wang Jianlin of the Dalian Wanda Group, a property conglomerate, began a three-year, 195-million-yuan sponsorship of the Chinese Super League last year. The move was reportedly encouraged by Liu Yandong, a member of the Politburo.
Wang had previously sponsored a championship team in Dalian , Liaoning, in the 1990s, as the team there was widely popular. But in 2008, embarrassed by fecklessness in the sport, CCTV stopped airing national league games. There were also very few companies that wanted to sponsor soccer clubs.
After Xi's remarks in 2009, the mainland's richest man, Xu Jiayin, along with the Evergrande Real Estate Group that he chairs, acquired the disgraced Guangzhou Pharmaceutical club in 2010 and has been pouring money into it ever since. Evergrande pays generous salaries to lure international star players and coaches, and their investment was publicly praised by Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang last year.
The CCTV sports editor added that 'if you sponsor a soccer club, the local government usually gives you incentives such as cheaper corporate tax or free land in the region'.
Authorities likely still have a long way to go to achieve the desired rebirth of Chinese soccer, as match-fixing, gambling, bribery and embezzlement has eroded the game for more than a decade.