There’s a saying that football is not a matter of life and death. But with the former head of the Chinese Football Association Nan Yong facing a death sentence over a recent match-fixing scandal, he may question just how important the world game really is.
Football in the Middle Kingdom has been exposed to numerous match-fixing and betting scandals, and corruption is never far from the mind when we think of the Chinese game.
The latest scandal has seen Guangzhou GPC and Chengdu Blades relegated to the second tier for bribing referees, while Nan Yong and his alleged cohorts face an uncertain future before the courts.
Yet, watching highlights of Beijing Guoan’s opening day victory over promoted Nanchang Bayi, it’s not easy to form the impression that the Chinese Super League is in a state of crisis.
Just under 45,000 fans turned out at the Workers Stadium to witness Beijing’s comfortable 2-0 win, and the goals scored by substitute Joel Griffiths and midfielder Wang Xiaolong were of a decent enough quality.
One of Beijing’s biggest fans is Bin Zhang – better known to internet-savvy Australian fans as forum poster ‘Green Lion’ – and I dropped him a line to ask why corruption has been such a problem in the Chinese game.
“In Chinese football, the idea that corruption is endemic has lead many into an attitude of acceptance. If the opposition cheats, be sure to cheat better,” Bin says.
“As we all know, the problems are deeply rooted and they are not going to magically disappear any time soon,” he adds.
The latest scandal lead new CFA chief Wei Di to threaten the cancellation of the entire season, and Rowan Simons – author of a book on Chinese football – claims that the corruption culture is entrenched.
“There’s no accountability, no responsibility for people to look after their own game. It’s viewed as a government game and therefore there’s no respect for it,” Simons told news agency Reuters.
The issue of government meddling has raised its head again, with new chief Wei Di boldly declaring that he would like to see China’s under-21 side turn out in the Super League.
The bizarre plan would see the youngsters play matches in midweek for no points – although results would count for their opponents – with the plan yielding widespread derision in a country where sports journalists are one of the few dissenting voices in the tightly controlled Communist state.
“Some journalists said I must have been kicked in the head by a donkey,” Wei told Chinese media after unveiling his proposal, which prompted an incredulous response from Beijing supporter Bin.
“I totally don’t think he is for real,” he told me. “Recent news says at least 24 of the 29 professional clubs are against the decision, and they need at least 18 clubs to support it.”
In spite of the corruption scandals and claims of government interference, there appears to be some cause for optimism in the Chinese game.
Just under 50,000 fans turned out in the ancient city of Xi’an to watch a star-studded Shaanxi Chanba draw 1-1 with fallen giants Dalian Shide on the opening day, with former Inter striker Mohamed Kallon tucking away a penalty for the hosts.
Kallon is one of several big-name foreigners to ply their trade in the league, and the Griffiths brothers at Beijing Guoan are undoubtedly two of the biggest stars.
I was amazed that Ryan Griffiths was left out of Beijing’s Asian Champions League squad, and there’s no question that he and his brother Joel are two of the most effective foreign players in China – drawing crowds, scoring goals and earning decent wages in the process.
The cliché of Chinese football as a “sleeping giant” is as tired as they come, but perhaps in this case there’s some merit to it.
If the Chinese government can clean up the domestic game, the A-League may yet have another regional superpower to contend with.