Tag Archives: sport

China’s Black Whistles Get Jail Time

Lu Jun , one of the 36 referees for the 2002 World Cup, takes a group photo with Bora Milutinovic, China's national soccer team's head coach, and other members of the team in Kunming, capital city of southwest China's Yunnan Province, April 26, 2002.  (Xinhua Photo/Tan Xipeng)Time has been blown on the Golden Whistle. Lu Jun, who earned that nickname when he was one of the country’s leading soccer referees, has been sentenced to five and a half years in jail for taking more than RMB710,000 ($113,000) in bribes to fix matches between 1999 and 2003. He is also to have personal property worth RMB100,000 confiscated. Lu is the man on the left of the Xinhua file picture to the right, taken in 2002, the year he became the first Chinese to officiate in a World Cup Finals.

Lu was one of nine convicted on corruption charges relating to Chinese football, whose professional soccer leagues have been plagued with allegations of gambling, match fixing and corrupt referees for years. The most severe sentence imposed in this latest batch of convictions was seven years imprisonment handed down to another Black Whistle, as corrupt referees are known, Huang Junjie. He is to have RMB200,000 of personal property confiscated. The former manager of the top professional league, the Super League, Lu Feng, is to serve six and a half years for corruption.

Other cases outstanding include the trials of Zhang Jianqiang, ex-director of the referees committee of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), and a former CFA vice-president, Yang Yimin. Both men’s trials started in December. (Update: Their sentences have now been handed down.)

Some 20 referees, players, officials and coaches have been arrested in a crackdown that stared in 2009 to cleanse the scandal-tainted game. These include former CFA vice-president Nan Yong, who was arrested in March 2010, and his predecessor Xie Yalong. They are still awaiting trial.

Several top-flight clubs, including Shandong Luneng, Shanghai Shenhua, Henan Jianye, Changchun Yatai and Jiangsu Shuntian, were implicated in the scandal. Shanghai Shenhua, for which French international Nicolas Anelka has recently signed, spent nearly $1 million bribing officials and referees such as Lu, the court in Dandong in Liaoning trying Lu was told.

The corruption scandals have overshadowed a dismal performance on the field by China’s national team. Its men’s side has failed to qualify for the next World Cup in Brazil, as it failed to do for the previous two. It also failed to qualify for the London Olympics tournament later this year, as did even its women’s team, which has been a rare beacon of success for Chinese teams in recent years. Even more humbling, China’s national team ranks 76th in the world on FIFA’s rankings. Neighbors Japan and South Korea rank 30th and 34th respectively.

As well as cleaning up the professional game and restoring the luster of the Super League by importing stars like Anelka, the education and sports ministry has launched an aggressive youth development program, including bringing in Jan Riekerink, who was previously coach of the storied Ajax youth team in his native Holland. Meanwhile, more than 100 promising young players have been sent to top professional clubs in Europe and South America in the hope that they or their successors can form the nucleus of a national side that could compete in a World Cup on Chinese soil, still dreamed of by the CFA for 2026.


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Anelka Could Help Chinese Football Kick On

Another sign, possibly, of the shifting sands of power from west to east. For a few years now aging European football stars have looked to the U.S. for a lucrative contract to see out their careers. One thinks of Beckenbauer and Chinaglia in the 1970s and Beckham and Henri more recently. This Bystander now sees reports that the 32-year-old French forward, Nicholas Anelka, who plays his club football for Chelsea, is in discussions to join Chinese Super League club, Shanghai Shenhua, on a three-year 60 million yuan deal (update: club says the deal is done). Another former France international, Jean Tigana, is reported to have been hired to coach the club. Ten of the head coaches at the 16 Super League clubs are foreigners, including Tigana’ compatriot, Philippe Troussier, at Shenzhen Ruby.

Shanghai Shenhua dropped to 11th last season in the Super League after being in the top five for the previous six seasons. The club is owned by Zhu Jun, founder of The9 Ltd, a Nasdaq-listed online games company. Zhu is a colorful character, to say the least, who once made his manager play him in an exhibition match against the British club, Liverpool. He is notorious for falling out with his players, so Anelka should fit right in. Zhu is also being sued by the Argentine football legend, Maradona, for alleged infringement of his image rights in a The9 game, Winning Goal.

One striker doesn’t make a spring, of course, and Anelka may prove to be the exception that proves the rule. Yet, if he does arrive as expected, he will augment a forward line that relies on the Argentine Luis Salmerón for its goals since Zhu sold some of the club’s best players. The sulky striker should also provide a diversion from the clean-up of the corruption and match-fixing scandal that has plagued the league. And if the Frenchman does prove to be a pathfinder, it would do no harm to Chinese football’s ambition to host the FIFA World Cup in 2026.


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Sport And Nationalism; Rockets, Hoyas And Orwell

Whether benign (ping-pong) or violent (basketball, ice hockey, cricket, etc, etc, etc), international sport has always been close enough to international politics to commute. The risk of putting sport in the service of diplomacy is that it can so readily reflect national interests and rivalries. Those can flare up at any moment, as we saw on the basketball court in Beijing on Thursday evening when a PLA team, the Bayi Rockets, which plays in the CBA’s southern division, took on, in every sense, the Georgetown Hoyas, students from America’s Georgetown University.

This latest ugly example (video, via The Guardian) prompted this Bystander to re-read George Orwell’s classic essay, The Sporting Spirit, written in the wake of in ill-tempered ‘goodwill’ visit to Britain in 1945 by the Dynamo football team from Stalinist-era Moscow. Two passages in particular resonated:

At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue….

As soon as strong feelings of rivalry are aroused, the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes. People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless. Even when the spectators don’t intervene physically they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and “rattling” opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.

Orwell concluded, “There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.” Words seemingly as true today as then.

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An Opportunity For A Chinese World Cup in 2026?

The corruption laced debacle that FIFA, world football’s governing body, has descended into may just open a door to China getting its dreamed-for first World Cup. Those who follow FIFA’s Byzantine intrigues tell us that the promises of septuagenarian Sepp Blatter, newly re-elected unopposed to a fourth term as president, to investigate allegations that Qatar bought its award of the 2022 World Cup, may lead to the bidding being reopened. (Qatar strongly denies the allegations.)

Even though FIFA’s member federations as a whole, and no longer just its executive committee, are meant to make the choice of World Cup hosts in future, scuttlebutt doing the rounds of FIFA’s Swiss headquarters holds that the 2022 tournament could be taken from Qatar and switched to the USA, which is now a candidate for the 2026 Cup. That would then open the way for China to host that tournament under FIFA’s informal system of continental rotation. Whether there is any credence to this chatter, and whether the unsuccessful bidders to host  “Asia’s” 2022 World Cup would demand it remained in the region and be staged by one of their number, this Bystander frankly has no idea. But in the looking-glass world of FIFA anything is possible.

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A Helping Bin Hammam Hand For China’s Football?

Mohamed bin Hammam, the Qatari businessman whose canditure challenging incumbent Sepp Blatter for the presidency of world football’s governing body, FIFA, was announced earlier this week, says he is running on his record of raising  the profile of Asian football, which is the fastest growth market in the world sport. “Asia is the future not only on the field but off the field,” he said during a campaign stop in Seoul this week.

Bin Hammam heads the confederation of Asian national football associations and was instrumental in helping his native emirate land the World Cup in 2022. One country that could use his help is China, which trails in the shadows of East Asia’s footballing powerhouses, South Korea and Japan–it ranks 76th in FIFA’s world rankings; the other two are in the top 30–yet the Chinese Football Association (FA) harbors ambitions to host a World Cup.

It is not just a lack of playing success. The country’s professional league has been wracked by a series of match-fixing, illegal gambling and bribery scandals and the FA has had its top administrators cleared out with some put on trial on corruption charges. Matters have reached the point where its main sponsor, Italian tyre manufacturer, Pirelli  (the company makes truck tyres in Shandong), scrapped its three-year contact worth a reported $6.8 million a year a year early just ahead of the opening of the new season last Friday. The league also doesn’t have a national TV coverage. State broadcaster CCTV is said not to be prepared to show games until after the corruption trial of former football association head Nan Yong.

While it is still far too early to prognosticate, should bin Hammam win the FIFA presidency vote on June 1, the most splendid thing he could do for football in China during his term of office might just be to be the FIFA president to announce that China had won the bidding to host the 2026 World Cup. But Chinese football has to do a lot of internal housecleaning first.

Update: Another sign of Asia’s growing importance to football and, indeed, all Western professional sports: The Wall Street Journal’s Exchange blog draws a straight line between China and the stake taken by U.S. basketball star LeBron James (the American Yao Ming) in Liverpool, the English Premier League football club sponsored by Hong Kong’s Standard Chartered bank and owned by Fenway Sports Group, American owners of the Boston Red Sox baseball team and which will be marketing James globally as part of their new deal.

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