Let professionals run Chinese soccer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am

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There is no bigger spectator sport in China than soccer, but nor is there a national game more scorned. Blighted by ineptitude and corruption, it is the reference point by which failure is measured. However, the passion of fans is driving change. The jail terms handed out to crooked football officials, among them the man who was once the country's top referee, is a good way to start the process.

Lu Jun, once known as the 'golden whistle' for his impartiality, was given a five-and-a-half-year sentence for taking bribes to fix matches. He was among four people handed terms of up to seven years. Debate rages about whether the sentences were tough enough and higher-profile officials - former Chinese Football Association chairman Nan Yong chief among them - are still on trial. Regardless, the right message has been sent: corruption will not be tolerated, whether at government level or on the sports field.

Dozens of people - officials, players, referees and coaches - have been arrested since President Hu Jintao spearheaded a drive to clean up the sport in 2009. But ridding soccer of corruption is only a small part of the fix. Theories abound as to why the national team has only once qualified for a World Cup finals or has yet to win a single game at the Olympics. A lack of grass-roots training, not enough pitches, the influence of gambling, the way in which players are chosen and a lack of emphasis on team sports are among the reasons cited. But none gets to the heart of the problem.

At fault is the system. As with any organised activity on the mainland, the state insists on maintaining control. That means the Communist Party controls the CFA. It's a formula that has struck gold hundreds of times for individual athletes at international sporting events, but it does not work when it comes to a sport like soccer.

Soccer's world governing body, Fifa, has long advocated that China follow its code and put an independent national organisation, run by dedicated professionals, in charge. There is every reason for this. Players must have skill, passion, energy and group spirit to be considered for a squad. Professionals, not officials, best know how to find and nurture these traits. It is a grass-roots-up approach that comes from the heart of a community and can produce skilled players with all manner of physiques, not just the athletic builds so successfully identified when it comes to athletics, swimming and gymnastics.

Vice-President Xi Jinping, Hu's expected successor and a soccer fan, last July made three wishes: for China to qualify for another World Cup, to host a World Cup and, finally, win a World Cup. Ridding the game of illegal gambling, match-fixing and bribery is a good start. But keeping it at arm's length from the government is the surest way to build a winning formula.