Tightening of the net

Over 100 questioned in soccer fixing clampdown

Tightening of the net

For Beijing Guoan, October 31 was a day of celebration. A capacity crowd of 64,000 watched the football team crush Hangzhou Greentown 4-0 and win – for the first time – the country’s Super League.

But for Chinese football as a whole there was less to celebrate. Less than a week later, news broke that senior soccer officials had been detained in a crackdown on illegal gambling and match-fixing. Titan Sports was one of those reporting that the general manager of Guangzhou Pharmaceutical had been detained.

Over 100 players, coaches, referees and club officials from the league have now been questioned. The probe has been ongoing for a year, but gained new urgency last month when the nation’s leader, Hu Jintao, remarked on the need to “revitalise soccer”.

For regular readers of WiC, this will be quite familiar territory. We have reported on problems with dodgy referees – “black whistles” – as well as the country’s deep frustration with its embarrassingly inept national team.

In WiC31, we gave an account of what – hopefully – might prove the game’s nadir: the match between Qingdao Hailifeng and Western Sichuan Chi Valley. Qingdao won the game 3-0 but in the last five minutes of the match attempted to slot in own goals.

In the most dramatic of the three efforts, Li Ming tried to lob his own goalkeeper from the halfway line. Somewhat farcically, Qingdao failed in each of the efforts to find their own net.

The prevailing theory is that gambling syndicates had bet big that the game would result in an aggregate of four goals. And with Qingdao’s attack giving up on scoring a legitimate goal, the team turned its firepower on itself.

That game happened in the league below the Super League, but match rigging may have reached the elite level too. Titan Sports reckons a game’s result can be fixed for Rmb3 million ($439,000) – that pays for the nefarious services of two defenders, a goalkeeper and a forward.

Veteran football commentator Li Chengpeng has welcomed the crackdown. He sees the problem as widespread, with corruption infiltrating almost every level of the sport. “It’s like everybody in the business treating the production of poisonous milk as normal and seeing those who do otherwise as aliens who must be got rid of.”

The Super League Clubs reaped sponsorship of $22 million last season but, if Li is right, soccer will require painful surgery to keep the sponsors interested.

Truth be told, it hasn’t been a good month for Chinese sport. The publication of Yuan Weimin’s memoir – recalling his 47 years as a top administrator in Chinese athletics – has also sparked controversy. The book reveals details of why the country’s long distance running team mysteriously “disappeared” before the Sydney Olympics (they tested positive for doping) and how a women’s volleyball coach arranged for the Chinese team to lose a match in the 2002 world championships, to avoid facing a tougher opponent in the next round.

For a government official of Yuan’s standing to expose such shenanigans is unusual by Chinese standards.

But for those who think greater transparency is just what Chinese sport (and especially soccer) needs, it could mark the start of a more positive era.

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