Xi blows whistle for the big match By Wu Zhong, China
HONG KONG - China's top soccer officials have been booted out and
put under investigation in a high-profile crackdown on rampant corruption and
match-fixing that also smacks of political maneuvering.
While fans and
the media cheered the sackings, it is said on the grapevine in Beijing the stand
may be part of Vice President Xi Jinping's bid to gain popularity in the runup
to the 18th Communist Party Congress in 2012, when he is expected to succeed
President Hu Jintao as supreme leader.
Xi, who organized the 2008
Olympic Games in Beijing, has followed soccer (football) since his childhood and
that Chinese football remains a "national humiliation", to use the words of zealous
The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported on Friday that Wei Di,
head of the Chinese Water Sports Center, was
appointed head of the Chinese Soccer Administrative Center (CSAD), replacing Nan
Yong, who has been detained by police investigating match-fixing allegations.
Deputy CSAD director Yang Yimin and Zhang Jianqiang, who used to head the
referee committee of the nation's professional leagues, are also under
Cui Dalin, Vice Minister of China's General Administration of Sport (GASC), announced the
decision to dismiss Nan and Yang at a press conference on Friday in Beijing.
On the surface, this seems like humdrum anti-graft action. Given
the scale of rampant corruption in China
nowadays, even a case involving provincial or ministerial officials hardly makes
much news and Nan is at best a prefecture-level cadre in China's official
hierarchy. But this is football and the major media reported it with
commentaries and opened their websites to welcome public comments.
Football ranks as one of the nation's top three sports, alongside table tennis and basketball, according to
unofficial surveys. While China still outlaws gambling, lotteries involving
foreign basketball and football games were
legalized about two decades ago to raise funds for social welfare and sports
"Underground" betting on
domestic football games is illegal, but
popular. So the financial interests of many individuals and their families are
wrapped up in the sport.
Popular as it is, football is also a great
disappointment to Chinese fans. With its fast economic rise, China is a big
sports power. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the nation topped the gold medal
table. But, with the exception of the 2002 World Cup, the Chinese National
Football Team has never qualified for the FIFA (Federation Internationale de
Football Association) tournament. Even in its
maiden FIFA World Cup appearance, the Chinese team failed to score a goal. The
national team further embarrassed compatriots when it was quickly knocked out of
the Olympics on its home turf. FIFA ranks China 93rd in its world ranking, lower
than Haiti, Syria and Iceland.
In recent years, China has
professionalized (or commercialized) football and has hired foreign coaches to
run the national team, including Serbian Vladimir Petrovic, who was fired after
China was eliminated from qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup, to be held
in South Africa. The hope was that well-paid full-time professional players and
coaching would lift the game's fortunes.
Accompanying this, however, has
been growing corruption, which adds outrage to fans' disappointment. It has
become an open secret that officials, referees and players alike take bribes to
fix matches as huge economic interests are involved inside and outside of
The impotence of the Chinese football teams may hurt
national pride, but match-fixing hurts their pockets. Authorities once tried
"killing a chicken to scare the monkey" to curb corruption in the game. In 2003,
a Beijing court sentenced former international referee Gong Jianping to 10 years
in prison after convicting him of accepting bribes. While several other referees
were also implicated in the scandal, senior football officials weren't touched.
Corruption returned on a bigger scale.
This time, the crackdown seems
much more serious. At the Friday press conference, Cui Dalin invited the public
to tip off a special investigation group. The group, set up in December,
includes officials from 12 central government departments, including the General
Administration of Sport, Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Justice
and the State Administration of Taxation. Needless to say, the formation of such
a special task force needs the nod of a higher authority. And that authority is
said to be none other than Xi Jinping himself.
Although one of the
so-called princelings - offspring of high-powered party members - Xi's personal
experiences give him a good understanding of ordinary people's feelings. In
1962, when he was aged nine, his father - a veteran revolutionary and a vice
premier at the time - was purged and thrown into prison by chairman Mao Zedong
as a leading member of an anti-party clique. It was not until 1978 that his
father was rehabilitated and appointed as Guangdong provincial party chief. In
1968, like many other high-school students, Xi went to receive "re-education" in
a poor village in Yan'an in north Shaanxi province, where he remained for seven
years until sent to study in Tsinghua University.
rehabilitation allowed Xi to join the People's Liberation Army (PLA) upon
graduating in 1979 and work as a secretary in the Central Military Commission.
Three years later, he resigned to start his political career as county party
secretary in Hebei province. For many years, Xi kept in close touch with people
at the grassroots.
The Beijing Olympics provided an opportunity to link
his political life to his love of sports. Hu Jintao put him in charge of
overseeing the organization of the international event. During preparations, Xi
went to Olympic venues including football pitches, talking with officials and
athletes. In a visit to the stadium in Qinghuangdao City, Hebei province, the
vice president even demonstrated his footballing skills by shooting at the goal
with his black leather shoes. It was perhaps during this period that Xi gained
first-hand information about football's problems.
In any case, a
nationwide crackdown on football corruption started in March 2009, when Beijing
announced the establishment of the inter-departmental special task.
During his visit to Germany in October 2009, Xi broached the subject of
Chinese football, saying in a media interview that China would devote greater
efforts to raising the profile of the game. He cited its huge fan base and large
market as worthy of support. Many read this as Xi's declaration of war against
corruption in football.
A month later, the Ministry of Public Security
said at least four people in the sport had been detained for suspected bribery.
In December, police made more arrests, including You Kewei and Xu Hongtao, two
former leaders with Chengdu Blades. The "big fish" were caught last week. Wei
Di, the newly appointed head of the CSAC, was brought in from outside the game
so he could remain impartial in helping mend its sullied reputation.
success of the Beijing Olympics has won Xi great respect in officialdom and from
the public. Given the outrage of football fans and their frustrations with the
national side, Xi could score highly if successful in cleaning up corruption and
boosting the game. This would be of great help in his bid to become the next