WORD ARRIVES FROM our man in London of a curious incident at a recent English football match. A Chinese national was questioned by anti-fraud authorities after being seen to be behaving suspiciously at a Football League One match between Coventry and Crawley on January 12. It was believed he was feeding details of the game to bettors in China faster than they would arrive through official channels thus letting the gamblers place instant bets that were a sure thing. The man, who was traveling on a tourist visa, was released without charges being pressed.
China is a big player in the global black market for football gaming, and has only just emerged from an endemic corruption scandal in its domestic game. Chris Eaton, a former policeman who was a security advisor to FIFA at the most recent World Cup in South Africa, where a Chinese gang running a sophisticated online betting network was uncovered, recently told the South China Morning Post that “China either needs to legalize and regulate sport betting or aggressively police and disrupt the illegal market.” He also called for Chinese police to join with regional and international forces to share intelligence on match-fixers and betting fraudsters.
Hong Kong, too, has had recent problems with match-fixing and illegal gambling on the game. At least two First Division clubs, Happy Valley and Tuen Mun, deregistered players suspected to be involved. In South Korea, 41 players from from the K-League were given lifetime bans last year following a match-fixing scandal after the government threatened to shut down the league if action was not taken.
That may have caught the eye of President Xi Jinping, who follows the sport. It would fit with his broader crackdown on corruption.
Nor would Xi be pleased with the embarrassing world standing of the national team. China is 92nd on FIFA’s latest world rankings; 39 places below South Korea and 44 below Japan. That may help explain the appointment of Cai Zhenhua, vice-president of the State General Administration of Sports (SGAS), i.e., the country’s sports vice-minister, as head of the scandal-tainted China Football Association. Cai is a former table tennis world champion who is credited with making China a world power in that sport as a coach. His new task will be to rebuild the reputation of Chinese football both on and off the field. “The stern reality of Chinese soccer forces us to make complete changes. I am burdened with a colossal task,” he says. Quite.