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February 9, 2010

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Football graft probe needs to net syndicate gamblers

RECENT reports about a sweeping anti-corruption cleanup in the dismally performing Chinese Football Association finally gave disaffected fans something to hope for. But they're not betting on success.

Wei Di, newly appointed president of the association, pledged in a press conference two weeks ago to sort out the match-fixing mess in which two top officials were sacked and detained for investigation on January.

At least 20 other officials, club managers and players have been detained in the widening probe. There's talk that this season's Super League expected to start this March could be canceled.

Wei pledged to pull China's national men's team from the quagmire and edge it into Asia's first class in four or five years. He also promised to make Chinese women's football world No. 1 again in the same period.

Wei's ambitious speech sounds all too familiar. Almost every new leader in the history of the Chinese Football Association makes the same inspiring promises. Yet none of them has realized them. On the contrary, China's football has become sicker and sicker over the years.

Never has any Chinese sports organization been at the center of such a huge scandal as the CFA after Nan Yong and Yang Yimin, both vice presidents, were toppled and reportedly implicated every single one of the 16 clubs in China's Super League.

Only two months ago, when the cleanup began to widen, the now-disgraced Nan was at the helm, vowing to cleanse the game of graft in an interview on national television.

His empty words are chilling in retrospect. The whole country now hopes the new leader Wei appointed by the State General Administration of Sport can save the game.

We have all heard stories about corrupt sports officials linked with deliberately woeful performances by the national team. But the allegations that bubbled over recently were much nastier.

Three weeks ago the Oriental Morning Post reported that spots on the Chinese national team could be had by bribes, rather than excellence in sport. A chance to play on a national team is reported to be worth a bribe of 200,000 yuan (US$29,285). To be a coach, of course, costs more.

Li Chengpeng, a seasoned football reporter and whistle-blower on soccer corruption, tells a much uglier story.

In his new book, "Inside Stories of Chinese Football" published on January 1 this year, Li says that almost every professional player in China has been targeted at least once by betting syndicates to help rig games.

Some of those who refused to cooperate were threatened by placing a gun in their mouth, he alleges. Some were buried alive or hamstrung to threaten them, he asserts. When the book was released it was criticized by many CFA officials who accused Li of smearing Chinese soccer.

But as the current crackdown on match fixing continues, more and more allegations have been proven true. Police explanations of rigged games between Guangdong and Chengdu clubs just echoed with Li's description.

No wonder China's national man's team ranked 87th in the world this month.

There's no question that shock therapy is needed; the question is, how deep is the rot and what's the next step?

So far, the investigation has only reached officials and former players, according to news reports. The big fish are the gambling bosses who bribed officials to fix games. But they remain faceless, though some people must know their identities.

Ending illegal football betting is necessary in the cleanup. By destroying gambling rings, the motive for fixing would be gone. Regulations must be enhanced in the country's sports lottery business, which channels people's zeal for risk. Take Britain, where legalized sports lottery and transparency of the managements both helped to root out illegal betting and game rigging.

The supervision of Chinese football authorities themselves must be strengthened. Montesquieu said in "The Spirit of the Laws": "Every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go."

As the governing body of a commercialized sport in China, the CFA has gone too far in hand-picking coaches and setting rules.

Lack of restrictions on CFA officials has allowed them virtually unchecked power. That and gambling rings are the reason Chinese football has turned this ugly.


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