Is China finally tackling its soccer corruption scourge?
Last week, the police announced they had arrested 16 players, coaches, and minor officials accused of match-fixing and betting scams.
Could light finally be dawning at the end of the tunnel for China's perennially frustrated soccer fans?Skip to next paragraph
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For years, Chinese soccer has been a source of shame. The national team is currently ranked 97th in the world, between Cuba and Albania. The professional league is a cesspit of match-fixing, illegal betting, and fisticuffs on and off the pitch. Fans and players at every level of the game are abandoning it in disgust.
Now President Hu Jintao has stepped into the fray, allowing Politburo member Liu Yandong to say publicly last month that China's top leader is "very concerned" about the state of the beautiful game in his country.
And last week, the police announced they had arrested 16 players, coaches, and minor officials accused of match-fixing and betting scams. The crackdown was a response to "the fervent wishes of soccer fans," the Ministry of Public Security said on its website.
Not everybody is convinced that real changes are afoot, however. "Sixteen arrests is no big deal," says Guo Zhenhua, a fan who gave up plans to become a sports reporter after he learned how deeply corruption had poisoned Chinese soccer. "That should be happening every day."
Xu Guoqing, a sports historian at Hong Kong University is also skeptical. "To solve the soccer problem in China you need the rule of law and an independent judiciary," he says. "Chinese leaders seem quite serious about fixing this, but there is no way they can under the present regime."
Officials are at least acknowledging that there is a problem. "Match-fixing is a cancer ... that has become increasingly severe in recent years," admitted Nan Yong, vice president of the Chinese Football Association, to the state-run news agency Xinhua on Thursday.
"Central government leaders are very concerned" by the situation and "society and the people are unhappy," said Xiao Tian, deputy head of the government's General Sports Administration a few weeks ago. "We are under great pressure," he added, promising reforms soon.
The challenge is massive, however, warns Declan Hill, author of "The Fix," a recent book on sport and corruption worldwide. "China is the ground zero of match fixing and its soccer league is a complete joke."