When football fans talk about a ‘soft penalty’, they usually mean a penalty kick that should never have been awarded. In Chinese footballing circles soft penalties are a hot topic right now too, but not of the sort where the referee wrongly points to the spot. Instead, they involve the recent ‘soft penalties’ handed out to a swathe of corrupt footballers and officials.
These punishments – announced last week – followed a three-year investigation into match-fixing and illegal gambling in soccer (for our first mention of these problems, see WiC31). The result: the Chinese Football Association banned 33 people from football for life, and a further 24 for five years. It also levied penalties on teams that rigged games.
The harshest penalty went to Shanghai Shenhua – adding further to the drama in that club’s boardroom (see WiC181). It was stripped of its 2003 Super League title – for fixing a match against Shaanxi Guoli that season – and will start the new season handicapped by a six point deduction. It was fined Rmb1 million too.
But as China Daily reports, the reaction to the punishments was a widespread view that they were “too soft”. Soccer journalist Liu Yong points out that when teams in Chengdu and Guangzhou were found to have fixed matches in an earlier probe, both teams were relegated – a far more serious penalty than docking six points. That means the latest punishment is “not fair”, by comparison, the reporter with the News Express argued.
The consensus: not only were the penalties too soft, not nearly enough people and teams were punished. But the game’s governing body mounted an unconventional defence against its critics: if it had punished everyone involved in past match-fixing it would have destroyed the league (a tacit admission of how widespread the problem was). Its current course is designed more to send out the signal that such violations won’t be tolerated in future.
An unorthodox but practical approach then, but one perhaps strengthened by the fact that Chinese soccer has been on the mend thanks to other factors (see WiC151 for more detail). Last season was arguably the cleanest since the eighties.
Mind you, not everyone thinks the punishments lenient. Xu Hong, the coach of Dalian Aerbin, thinks his five-year ban is anything but. In an interview with Sports Weekly he put the boot into the regulator, describing his punishment as “absurd” and “grossly unfair to me”.
He protests his innocence. “I have been coaching for 11 years and have always adhered to three principles: never take bribes from players’ parents, never gamble and never take a penny from the introduction of foreign players. In China’s football circles, that is no easy thing to do.”
Xu refutes the evidence against him as “unreasonable”. It relates to a match in involving Sichuan Guancheng when he was asked by the opposition to bench a Brazilian player and lose the game. “As head coach, I wanted to win,” he says, denying he took a bribe or told the players to throw the match. “Had I gambled I would have made millions, but my conscience did not allow me to do that.”
Describing himself as “wronged”, Xu adds: “People around me know I never gambled. Had I taken the money, I would not have cared how I was punished.”
He’s consulting a lawyer and says he will appeal. “Football is my life, I cannot live without it. I did not expect that I would leave it this way,” laments the 45 year-old.
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