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China crisis: Soccer rocked by corruption scandals

By James Montague and Jaime FlorCruz for CNN
  • Players and officials from China and Hong Kong arrested for match fixing
  • Start of the Chinese soccer league postponed because of corruption
  • Former World Cup referee Lu Jun amongst those arrested
  • China plummets on the FIFA rankings to 85th
  • China
  • FIFA World Cup
  • FIFA
  • Hong Kong

Beijing and London, England (CNN) -- No one thought anything was particularly amiss when Happy Valley lost 2-0 to Fourway Rangers in the Hong Kong First Division last October.

After all, Happy Valley was enduring a miserable season, which would end in a humiliating relegation. The match would have remained an obscure result in one of soccer's most obscure backwaters, watched by just 442 people at the Sham Shui Po Sports Ground, had it not been revealed that there was something far more sinister than Happy Valley's ineptitude at work.

Earlier this month five soccer players were arrested on suspicion of taking bribes from gambling syndicates to throw the match. Four have since been released on bail but one, Yu Yang, was sentenced to 10 months in prison for attempted bribery on 20 May according to the official Chinese press agency, Xinhua.

This was not an isolated incident either. Soccer on the Chinese mainland is in crisis, mired in seemingly endless corruption scandals off the pitch, and dogged by woeful performances on it.

Soccer woes

China has missed out on this summer's World Cup in South Africa, plummeted down the FIFA world ranking and, even worse, the state-run Chinese Super League (CSL) is experiencing its own corruption scandal that has spread to Hong Kong.

As well as the five players in Hong Kong, a further 20 officials have been arrested, including former Chinese Football Association (CFA) boss Nan Yong and his deputy Yang Yimin. Two CSL clubs, Guangzhou and Chengdu were relegated from the top division for match fixing, postponing the start of the soccer season.

Most damaging of all, however, was the arrest of Lu Jun, a former international World Cup referee known as the "Golden Whistle" for his impartiality, on suspicion of taking bribes. If found guilty he could face the death penalty.

There's corruption at every single level of the game, from the top to the very bottom.
--Rowan Simons, author of Bamboo Goalposts

"It was really, really shocking news in China, not just in sports but with everyone, especially when the soccer chief had to step down from the position," Tang Yue, a sports journalist for the government-run China Daily, told CNN.

Huge market

It really shouldn't have been like this. While Hong Kong, which has its own football association, has a national team that has consistently been ranked as a less than mediocre side in world football, China was seen as the next great hope for spreading the gospel of the "beautiful game."

Soccer, after all, is China's most popular sport. It is estimated that anywhere up to 30 million people watch the English Premier League every weekend while 180 million watched last year's CSL on television.

Video: China football probe arrests

Sepp Blatter, the president of football's governing body FIFA, was so keen to shore up support for the game that when China hosted the 2004 Asian Cup Blatter flew in for the final and controversially declared that it was the Chinese, and not the English, that had invented soccer.

"You cannot deny the history that in China there is a recollection and evidence [that] they played the game a thousand years ago," Blatter told a soccer expo in Beijing, giving FIFA's official seal to claims that the ancient sport of "cuju" was the great-grandfather of the modern game.

Endemic corruption

In 2004 money was poured in and the CSL set up with much fanfare. With history and the world's largest sports market on its side -- a ready made 1.3 billion-strong soccer-crazy population -- China seemed destined to be the game's next global super power. But now the national team languishes on a world rank of 85, between Moldova and Angola, and there are fears that the true extent of the influence of Chinese betting syndicates has only just begun to be revealed.

"The CSL was already the third attempt at setting up the league because the other two collapsed due to corruption and fan violence," Rowan Simons, author of Bamboo Goalposts, a recent book about soccer in China, told CNN.

"There's corruption at every single level of the game, from the top to the very bottom. It's an indictment of wider Chinese society and representative of a much bigger problem with corruption and nepotism. It's more visible with football because your results are taken by your performance in international competition. So there is nowhere to hide. They are 85th in FIFA's world rankings with a population of over a billion people."

Xinhua reported earlier this year that 106,626 government officials were found guilty of corruption by the Central Commission For Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party's anti-corruption watchdog in the first 11 months of 2009. Still, according to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index China is ranked 79th in the world.

According to Simons, corruption in Chinese football is so ingrained that even players at the national level have to pay bribes to get a game.

"There was even a rate card published in the press," he said. "£10,000 ($14,960) to get selected for the national squad. To get a run out as a sub its £20,000 ($17,950). Players have come out and said they can't play for the national team because they can't afford it." When CNN put these concerns to the CFA they declined to comment.

Government intervention

The scandal has generated such bad headlines, however, that the government is now taking the problem extremely seriously. A replacement has been found in the shape of Wei Di, who was in charge of China's water sports federation and who has no previous experience in soccer.

"Even the sports minister had to be involved, and President Hu Jintao," explained Tang Yue. "He has said he wants to improve soccer in China. It shows the level of determination [that he is involved]."

But this in itself presents another problem. FIFA rules seek to protect soccer officials from government interference. Chad, Kenya, Iraq and Iran have all faced suspension after FIFA claimed they suffered from such meddling. But in China, where the line between government and private involvement has become blurred, no action has been taken.

It is this government interference, according to Simons, that has created the space for corruption and match fixing to exist in the first place.

"Sport is government-owned and government-controlled," Simons said. "People don't have the same personal responsibility for sport. They don't think sport is theirs. Football is not the people's game; it's the government's game and always has been in living memory."

Others looking at the role of the Chinese government in sport agree that it is this relationship that has helped to undermine the game.

"The government really needs to loosen its grip," explained Christopher Renner, president of sports consultancy Helios Partners China.

"Obviously, that's never going to happen entirely, but they should focus on policy and not the day-to-day running of sports, especially when commercial elements are involved. This is where money comes in and the temptation is too great for these underpaid bureaucrats. At least with football, they need to let market forces have more of an impact on leadership, owners, coaches and players. Those who get results, and not those who play the political game, need to be rewarded."

Brazil 2014?

Tens of millions of Chinese fans will still tune in to June's World Cup in South Africa, cheering on adopted teams from South America and Europe. But as Simons points out, whether the Chinese national team makes it to the 2014 finals in Brazil depends largely on their ability to keep soccer clean locally.

"This is a central government crackdown which you get periodically: lots of people are arrested and [gambling] syndicates broken up," he said. "The football crackdown is wider and deeper than many had predicted. Has it ended everything? No. It has killed everything dead, for now. But it will creep back in if the main issues can't be addressed."