Soccer is China's biggest spectator sport - and the country's biggest exception to sporting success on the international stage. For an explanation, the courts of the northeastern province of Liaoning are as good a place as any to start. On Wednesday they meted out 10-year jail sentences and 200,000 yuan (HK$245,000) in fines to two former Chinese soccer bosses for taking bribes, and up to six-year sentences to four former national team players for fixing matches. That takes to 56 the number of high-ranking national and club officials, players and referees sent to jail in a three-year crackdown on corruption.
Look into it a bit more and it is hard to resist the conclusion that the system should have been in the dock along with the accused. State control is a formula that has struck international gold in individual sporting events. But the popularity and commercialisation of soccer has perverted the involvement of government officials and state-owned enterprises. With money easily borrowed from state banks, they have poached and overpaid better players to join clubs which serve their own interests and brands. The result is the destruction of a level playing field, illegal gambling and corruption.
Top state leaders have taken a personal interest in raising the standard of Chinese soccer. Their hand-picked supremo Wei Di , a former top water sports official, who insists that a state-backed system with Chinese characteristics remains the best way forward, recently joined government sports officials on a visit to Japan to study its success in the game.
We wish him all the best in ridding soccer of graft and scandal, instilling integrity, honesty and sportsmanship, and restoring confidence among fans and reputable private investors.
But contrary to his view, he would stand a better chance if China put an independent national organisation, staffed by dedicated professionals, in charge of building the foundations for success from the grass roots up.