'Following Paul the Octopus' spectacular winning streak by correctly 'predicting' the winner of Germany's seven matches at the 2010 World Cup, as well as the final, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) decided to pay big money for Paul to predict when the national team would qualify for the World Cup. After hovering near the box marked with the Chinese national flag for a couple of hours, Paul smashed himself repeatedly against the container until he died. His death prompted a strong protest not only from Germany but also from Fifa (the sport's world governing body), which ordered China to give up football in order to save other octopuses and animal oracles from suicide.'
This popular joke is among thousands circulating on internet forums if one does a Google search for the national soccer team and joke together in Chinese. No other sport can so easily elicit a collective sneer from millions of mainland fans. To a certain extent, it has become a symbol of national shame as the sport has long been bedevilled by allegations of official corruption, match-fixing, gambling and crooked referees.
Diehard fans who believed the sport could not get any worse have been shocked by the recent spate of explosive allegations stemming from a widening national investigation into gambling and match-fixing.
The probe was believed to have begun last year and escalated in January when Nan Yong, the former head of the CFA, was arrested on bribe-taking and match-fixing charges along with two of his top aides at the association. Since then, dozens of officials, referees and players have been detained for questioning.
Earlier this month, Xie Yalong, Nan's predecessor, was also arrested along with the national team's former manager Wei Shaohui, and Li Dongsheng, former director of the mainland soccer referees' committee. This was followed last week by reports that the head of the football association in Chongqing and Li Tong, Nike China's marketing director, were questioned by police. Li, once a star hurdler on the mainland, was later released after being quizzed on Nike's sponsorship of the professional Super League.
The local media has now frequently reported that Cui Dalin, a former deputy minister in charge of soccer at the General Administration of Sport, is implicated in the probe despite his repeated denials.
Over the past week, the mainland media have started to run detailed allegations of corruption against Nan, Xie and others, which certainly make juicy reading. One allegation says that when Nan was arrested in January, the police found one of his bank cards contained a deposit of 6 million yuan (HK$6.9 million).
Both Xie and Nan played crucial roles in fixing matches in the professional league, determining not only the league champion but also which teams are relegated at the behest of gambling syndicates. Some media reports even alleged that Xie, Nan and their cohorts manipulated the matches of the national soccer teams.
Wei was alleged to have solicited bribes of between 100,000 and 300,000 yuan for young unknown footballers to join the national team. A widely circulated anecdote about Wei's greed has it that he once took some national team players to a shop selling luxury watches in an international airport, picked up an expensive watch and put it on, dropping an obvious hint for those with him to pay the bill.
It is little wonder that the mainland's national team has performed so poorly in the past 15 years. It has not only failed to qualify for the past two World Cups but has also struggled to compete with weak teams in Asia. According to the latest Fifa rankings, China is ranked 82nd in the world and 7th in Asia.
What is going to happen next? There is little doubt that Xie, Nan, and several other prominent referees and footballers will be put on trial and given stiff jail sentences to show the mainland leadership's determination to root out corruption.
But will the new crop of officials who take over the CFA do any better? The odds are not very good if the CFA continues to operate as a branch of the General Administration of Sport, which lacks transparency and has the final say in everything major about the future of mainland soccer: how the Super League is run and the national team is formed as well as determining the sponsorships.