The man who used to head the mainland's soccer referees went on trial for corruption along with a soccer club boss yesterday, kicking off a series of trials that is expected to feature more than 60 officials and businessmen.
Zhang Jianqiang, a former director of the Chinese Football Association's (CFA) referees committee and a former head of women's soccer at the General Administration of Sport, was charged with accepting 2.73 million yuan (HK$3.32 million) in bribes from at least nine mainland soccer clubs and regional soccer authorities between 1997 and 2009.
He is the first senior official to go on trial following a crackdown on corruption that reached the top of the game and led to the downfall of the CFA's head.
After an investigation lasting more than 21 months, the 59-year-old Zhang stood trial at the Tieling Intermediate People's Court in Liaoning province together with Li Zhimin, chairman of the Shaanxi Guoli soccer club, who is accused of receiving 2.5 million yuan to help at least two soccer clubs rig matches.
Prosecutors told the court that Zhang was suspected of colluding with referees, rigging matches and helping clubs secure promotion in return for bribes.
He has been accused of receiving 900,000 yuan in bribes from Shaanxi Guoli between 1997 and 1998 in return for helping it gain promotion by arranging for a referee to favour the club, as well as 680,000 yuan from a club in Liaoning in 1999 to help it win a match and stay in the top division.
Zhang has also been accused of accepting 700,000 yuan to favour Shanghai Shenhua in a derby match with Shanghai International in late 2003 and dividing the money equally with referee Lu Jun after the match.
Zhang pleaded guilty and said he had returned 2.6 million of the bribe money, but his lawyer said that while Zhang had received the money, he had not given direct instructions to referees and the offence should not be considered as bribe-taking.
The court did not hand down a verdict yesterday. The mainland media said Zhang could face at least 15 years in jail.
Hundreds of mainland reporters and soccer fans gathered outside the court yesterday, with many expressing hope that the court ruling could help cleanse mainland soccer of under-the-table deals.
The Beijing Evening News reported that former CFA vice-chairman Yang Yimin and more than 30 top soccer officials, soccer club bosses and referees would face trial in Tieling and Dandong, also in Lioaning province, in the next three days.
However, two other former CFA vice-chairmen, Nan Yong and Xie Yalong, are not on the list because their cases require further investigation.
The Beijing Evening News reported that they had been detained in Tieling and Dandong and were expected to go on trial around February. Former national team captain Wei Shaohui and CFA Super League general manager Lu Feng will also go on trial next year.
The widespread corruption was first exposed when a Liaoning club tried to rig a match in Singapore in 2007, and several players were jailed. Gambling, match-fixing, crooked referees and poor performances by the national team have made the sport the laughing stock of increasingly indifferent fans, and have become a matter of top-level concern.
The total amount of bribes, in yuan, that defendants Zhang Jianqiang and Li Zhimin have been accused of accepting