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.
Beijing — Could light finally be dawning at the end of the tunnel for China's perennially frustrated soccer fans?
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."
Corrupt referees, renowned for awarding dodgy penalty kicks, are so numerous they have their own nickname in China – "black whistles." Last August the Chongqing team coach, Dutchman Arie Haan, was fined for "insulting the fourth official in an immoral way" after he waved a wad of banknotes in the official's face, asking "do you want money?" in protest against a dubious penalty awarded to his opponents.
He was only drawing attention to a pervasive state of affairs, however. "There have been secret rules in Chinese soccer" one of the 16 detainees, Yang Xu, was quoted as telling the police in Thursday's "China Daily" newspaper.
"I thought that since everyone was doing it [bribing and fixing matches] we would suffer for our honesty if we did not follow the practice," he explained.
Mr. Yang, a former deputy team manager, and his fellow defendants "are small fish," points out Prof. Xu.
The real problem, claims Mr. Hill, is that "officials into the heart of the Chinese Football Association are corrupt.
"They are up to their elbows in it," which explains why no serious steps have been taken despite years of intermittent scandals, he says.
So bad has Chinese soccer's reputation become that it is fast losing its popular appeal. Chinese state-owned television stopped broadcasting live games a year ago. More worrying for China's hopes of one day becoming a world soccer power, boys are not playing the game as they once did.
650,000 adolescents were playing soccer in China in the mid-1990's, the then vice president of the Chinese Football Association, Yang Yimin, said two years ago. By 2007, that number had plummeted to 30,000, he lamented.
China did not make it to the 2010 World Cup soccer finals in South Africa; they were not one of the top ten teams in Asia. But the Chinese remain keen spectators of other people's soccer: 500 Chinese sports reporters covered the 2006 World Cup in Germany for fans back home.
Next year those fans "will be asking tough questions again" about the state of Chinese soccer, predicts Xu. "The smart thing for Chinese leaders to do is to acknowledge the problem before the South Africa World Cup, from a position of strength after the Olympic Games," which all Chinese are proud of.
"They know they have to say something", Xu adds. "But the top leaders saying something and picking a few people up is not going to change anything."