Xi blows whistle for the big match
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

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 shares 

frustrations that Chinese football remains a "national humiliation", to use the words of zealous fans.

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 investigation.

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 causes.

"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 football stadiums.

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.

His father's 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.

The 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 supreme leader.