Corruption scandal in Chinese football yet another own goal in national ambitions to be a powerhouse

While details have been scarce, it is clear that the current investigation affects footballing officials at the very highest level.

Elizabeth Law

Elizabeth Law

The Straits Times


The Chinese authorities said in November 2022 they had launched an investigation into former national football coach Li Tie. PHOTO: AFP

April 3, 2023

BEIJING – China’s football administrators have had a difficult few months.

First, anti-graft investigators came for former national coach Li Tie. Then it was the turn of other top administrators, including the president of the China Football Association (CFA), Chen Xuyuan.

On Saturday, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said that a deputy minister of the country’s top sports administration was also under investigation, the ninth official linked to the latest anti-graft probe.

While details have been scarce, it is clear that the current investigation affects footballing officials at the very highest level.

But observers have noted that the investigations may not be about corruption so much as the lack of progress in China’s quest to become a footballing powerhouse, which it intends to achieve by 2050.

How did the sport, said to be a favourite of Chinese President Xi Jinping, end up repeatedly scoring own goals?

It has been tripped up by match-fixing scandals, the overreach of bureaucrats, and funding shortfalls when club owners, many of them property developers, suffered losses after the property market was hit hard by new regulation.

The match-fixing, gambling and corruption scandals in the early 2000s resulted in the 2010 arrest of three CFA vice-presidents.

With that taken care of, Chinese football seemed to be looking up.

On a state visit to Mexico in 2013, Mr Xi declared himself a “soccer fan” in a speech to the Senate, and said the Chinese football team had worked hard but only made it to the World Cup finals once. During that 2002 outing, the team crashed out of the tournament at the group stage without scoring a single goal.

By 2015, the government had set out the Football Reform and Development Programme, with the goal of making China a football powerhouse by 2050.

There were ambitions of reaching another World Cup final by 2030, while some administrators seeded the idea of even hosting football’s top event.

State media showed Mr Xi attending youth matches, kicking around a football and visiting players.

Corporate sponsors tripped over one another to have their name attached to teams. The top-tier local league, the China Super League (CSL), was offering eye-watering transfer fees that many European and South American clubs could only dream of.

But a combination of the pandemic, resulting in empty stadiums and a lack of games, and shifting government priorities has seen Beijing cracking down hard on the excesses of big conglomerates.

Clubs have been dissolved overnight, while a number of players lured by the top dollar offered have upped and left, claiming unpaid salaries.

Football clubs belonging to large conglomerates, especially developers hit hard by the property bubble bursting, have borne the brunt of the downturn.

In February 2021, a team belonging to electronics giant Suning and the reigning champion of the CSL, Jiangsu Suning FC, was abruptly dissolved, with the conglomerate citing financial difficulties and a shift of focus to its core businesses.

Later that year, Guangzhou FC parted ways with its Italian team manager Fabio Cannavaro, one of the highest-paid football managers in the world, as troubles began to mount at its parent company, property developer China Evergrande Group.

Meanwhile, football officials and the CSL tried to curb overspending by changing the rules, including imposing a tax on player imports and limiting the number of foreign players allowed at each club.

Frustrated fans were once again reminded of the national team’s lacklustre performance by the World Cup in Qatar last year, where Asian neighbours Japan and South Korea both made it into the knockout stage against top European teams.

Many fans complain of a lack of investment in the sport at the youth and local level, where they see many bureaucrats merely going through the motions, instead of being genuinely interested in the sport.

A video of the recent Governor’s Cup in Guangdong province for teams from local colleges, for instance, showed players running around in a muddy, water-logged field.

“If this were a regular game, this shows the players’ passion. That this is the final of the annual provincial Governor’s Cup, it shows ineptitude,” wrote football commentator Dong Lu, who shared the clip on his Weibo account.

Also, match-fixing has not entirely gone away.

During an under-15 boys’ football tournament in Guangdong in 2022, spectators noted how the team from Qingyuan city appeared to throw away victory after surging to a 3-1 lead.

Footage on social media showed an injured player not replaced for several minutes, while the Qingyuan team seemed to pull back in their efforts. It ended with the other team, from Guangzhou, winning 5-3.

Investigators later found that the match between the teenage teams had been fixed, and punished 16 officials, including Guangdong province’s top sports administrator, who was later fired.

Industry watchers say the incident is indicative of the systemic problems within Chinese football.

The state’s impatience over football has meant it frequently, even excessively, intervenes in the sport, said professor of sport and geopolitical economy Simon Chadwick of the Skema Business School in Paris. But there has been little to show for it and, as a result, Mr Xi’s goals for football have largely fallen short.

“As an outcome of these other factors, a political purge inside the CFA is now taking place,” Professor Chadwick told The Straits Times.

“In other words, the current investigation would seem to be motivated more by politics than by a desire to exercise good governance.”

But he noted that the CFA had in fact made progress in transforming the organisation of the sport, and many of the senior officials at the body are well-educated and accomplished.

These include CFA president Chen, who has led the body since 2019; former national player-turned-coach Li Tie; and most recently, General Administration of Sport (GAS) deputy minister Du Zhaocai.

Neither the GAS nor CFA responded to The Straits Times’ requests for comment.

But shortly after Saturday’s announcement about the investigations, the GAS vowed to fully cooperate with the CCDI, noting that recent cases have shown that corruption in the sport remains “complex and severe”.

Other fundamental issues remain, including the fact that parents simply do not want their children to become professional footballers, preferring that they take white-collar jobs.

Other goals, like setting up 70,000 soccer pitches by 2020 and having 20,000 schools specialised in football training, have quietly fallen by the wayside.

Since he came to power in 2013, Mr Xi has made an anti-corruption drive a priority. Although references to footballing have become increasingly rare in recent years, it appears that with the recent spate of investigations, two of his priorities are colliding.

But whether this will finally score a goal for the game remains to be seen.

“The current investigation feels like a reset endgame, in which all remnants of the largesse displayed over the last decade are swept away,” Prof Chadwick said.

“If the government can remain patient and think strategically about football, then we will see a focus on building the game bottom-up over the next decade.”

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