China should be a power in Asian football by dint of raw population size if nothing else. Yet it occupies 10th spot in FIFA’s regional rankings (and is 87th in the world). It failed to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, where both North and South Korea will be competing; indeed, it has only qualified once, in 2002. The height of its achievement was to be losing finalist in Asian Nations Cup in 1984 and 2004, since when the national team has been on a downward trajectory.
For a country that has been putting a lot into reflecting its national pride in its emerging global power in its sporting prowess, that is a dismal, if not downright embarrassing record. Perhaps part of the reason is that players can bribe their way in to the national squad. That was one of the revelations of an anti-corruption probe into the professional game in the country that has been going on over the past year. It is uncovering what a lot of fans have long known: corruption, match-fixing and illegal gaming are endemic in Chinese professional football, and that the rot starts at the top and goes deep.
Earlier this month the head of the game’s governing body in China, Nan Yong, was removed from office along with his deputy. They were detained by authorities along with a third official from the FA. More than 20 officials, players and referees have been held for questioning during the anti-corruption probe. These include, Xu Hongtao, chairman of Super League club, Chengdu Blades, and his deputy. His club, which is owned by the English club Sheffield United, was demoted from the league for alleged match fixing. Second division Qingdao Hailifeng, found to have been the recipient of a bribe from Chengdu to throw a game in 2007 that ensured the Blades promotion to the Super League, has been thrown out of the professional sport. A third club, Guangzhou Pharmaceutical, was also demoted from the Super League for alleged match-fixing in 2006. (Full details.)
The punishments have to be confirmed by the sports ministry, the General Administration of Sport of China, but that seems a formality. While the clubs can appeal, “the mountain of evidence unearthed during the nationwide crackdown on gambling means they have little chance of succeeding,” according to Xinhua.
Whether those punishments, the most severe imposed on the sport, are sufficiently exemplary to clean up the sport this Bystander frankly doubts so endemic is the corruption within the game. The new head of the FA, Wei Di, says it will take five years to set the sport to rights, so we expect there to be more punishments to come, including imprisonments such as the three year sentence imposed on a former player for illegal online betting. The confluence of corruption and sporting standing is of too great importance to the Party leadership (and football isn’t the only scandal-tainted sport). Last October, Liu Yandong, a Politburo member whose previous job was to keep non-Party organizations in line with Party policy, publicly said that President Hu Jintao was “very concerned” about the state of the game. There is much for him to be concerned about — and for professional football to be concerned about if the President is concerned.