China’s crackdown on match-fixing, bribery and corruption finally reached its symbolic conclusion last week with two CFA chiefs and a national team captain each receiving ten and a half year prison sentences. Subject to appeal, Xie Yalong, Nan Yong and Wei Shaohui will join over 50 convicted members of football’s family, including the Head of the Referees Committee (and his ‘top’ referees), a number of Club owners (and their senior management), as well as several national team and CSL players, regional FA officials and assorted agents.
While scandals involving ‘guardians of the game’ are nothing new, the depth of the depravity, the incredible Communist Party campaign to bring selected targets to justice via its own media and the tough custodial sentences make this the most important of new case studies for nations grappling with similar crises.
Until this campaign, the worst that those caught cheating the game might expect was a fine and a ban. If you disagreed, you could go to a special court in the mountains. This was the benchmark with its easy get-out clause for those already retired. But, when FIFA re-admitted China in the 1980s, it handed football to the Chinese government which does not bother with all that. That same government has always found difficulty translating ‘specificity’ and now it has shifted interpretation of the law to allow long prison terms and confiscation of personal assets for football offences.
For many in China, even these harsh sentences are too light for the ‘dirty crimes committed against society’. Some bloggers go even further. When Xie Yalong dramatically accused the police of torture in open court, many called for an investigation into why the police had not given all the defendants the same treatment. Some may agree with Chinese fan sentiment, but few inside European football welcome incursions by any justice system, however fair.
Since many of those involved were taken into custody and held without trial over two years ago, Chinese football has been “re-building” for a couple of seasons under the ‘leadership’ of water sports specialist Wei Di. Now seems an opportune moment to peer through the smog to update Leaders on how the filthy football sector has changed.
If FIFA thought the Chinese government might be pulling football’s strings in breach of its Constitution, the official appointment of a new CFA President should have provided a clue. Cai Zhenhua was transferred directly from his position as the Vice Minister of Sport, having been widely reported as holding the CFA position for over a year before that. With the amiable Zhang Jilong now acting President of the AFC, the top positions in both Asian and Chinese football are held by men appointed by the Chinese government rather than football itself.
Meanwhile, the China Super League is back with a new look. Now driven by the absurd levels of private investment needed to entice stars like Anelka to Shanghai, a few clubs are attempting to build squads capable of winning in Asia. It is, they say, the first step to becoming “China’s Barcelona”. Given the sources of funding for these adventures, several other European teams would seem a more suitable analogy. Financial fair play anyone?
The excitement generated by re-routing large amounts of money from match-fixing and luxury goods bribes into star studded squads led by seasoned international managers (all of whom sell luxury goods) is real. Crowd numbers and merchandise sales are on the rise. However, if Premier League clubs are criticized for bringing too many foreigners to England at the expense of domestic players, what about China, with its noticeable absence of international quality to date?
To deal with the issue, the minted Chairman of one conglomerate who tired of the corruption a few years ago (but not the political connections) has agreed to pump a reported US$500 million into Chinese football via the ‘new’ CFA. US$77 million will go to youth development, but I asked and 0% will be available for community-based grassroots clubs. Instead, tens of millions will be spent sending ‘selected’ youths to train in Europe.
The fact that China has to pay for these young players to study at private schools and join sub-foundation junior teams simply reveals they are not good enough to be taken on merit. If ever a Chinese youth does make the football grade, European clubs will queue up to sign him and buy his parents a house.
In an effort to further scale this highly inefficient model that selects from the tiny pool of overall youth players in China, current CSL champions Guangzhou Evergrande are said to be building a huge Real Madrid branded campus for 3,000 full time ‘students’. It is to be hoped that the highest European standards will ensure their wellbeing, especially when dropped from the football programme. Indeed, the project should be judged on that basis alone.
Although China has made some of those responsible for corruption pay with the loss of their liberty, nobody here has yet noticed that we are left with the same football system, only with more money. There is still government interference at the highest level, still an un-sustainable league (though for different reasons) and still the headless pursuit of a youth policy that refuses to see football as a participation sport. Even prison cannot stop this madness.
Rowan Simons is the Chairman of China ClubFootball FC, China’s first independent grassroots network, and the author of Bamboo Goalposts (Macmillan)