When China went to war on endemic football corruption

Peter STEBBINGS
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Corruption was once widespread in Chinese football

When Tianjin Tianhai surprisingly thrashed Rafael Benitez's Dalian Yifang 5-1 to stay in the Chinese Super League in November, disgruntled fans were quick to allege corruption -- the legacy of a murky past that exploded into scandal 10 years ago.

Benitez, who led Liverpool to the 2005 Champions League title, was perplexed by one of the heaviest defeats of his coaching career, saying: "This is a game that I don't quite understand."

Despite fan complaints to the Chinese Football Association (CFA), no case was brought and there is no evidence of wrongdoing.

But the haste with which some supporters claimed match-fixing was proof that deep scars remain, a decade after a major crackdown on graft that ensnared a string of leading figures in Chinese football.

Allegations of organised gambling, crooked referees and match-fixing had dogged the sport in the world's most populous country for years.

Coupled with the national side's poor performances, fans were disillusioned, attendances suffered and sponsors fled.

It was in this climate in January 2010 that Nan Yong, supremo at the CFA, and two other senior CFA figures were hauled in by police on allegations of bribe-taking and match-fixing.

When police raided a Beijing villa belonging to Nan they discovered gold, diamonds and watches that he confessed he accepted from clubs and referees.

In a widening corruption investigation, scores of CFA officials, club executives, referees, players and agents were questioned in the following months.

According to some, the crackdown was at the behest of Xi Jinping, the then vice-president of the country who has since become China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Xi has pledged to make China a leading football power.

"It is an open secret that the chaos in Chinese soccer is not a matter of (only) one rotten egg spoiling the whole pudding," the state-run China Daily said in January 2010, urging an overhaul.

CFA officials routinely fixed matches, including national team and league games, by buying off players or referees, state media alleged.

Some CFA officials also reportedly accepted pay-offs from players desperate to be in the national team -- a practice that was also widespread among at club level.

- Torture claim -

In February 2010, Guangzhou Pharmaceuticals -- who would later be rebranded as Guangzhou Evergrande, winning eight league titles and two Asian crowns -- and Chengdu Blades were relegated for paying bribes.

Referees began disappearing into police custody too, among them Lu Jun, who officiated at the 2002 World Cup and the Olympics, earning the nickname "Golden Whistle".

Wei Di, who replaced the sacked Nan at the top of the CFA, threatened to cancel the 2010 season, saying: "Our goal is to clean up Chinese football, we cannot allow this cancer to remain in the body."

In autumn 2010 the dragnet widened and investigations were launched into Nan's predecessor Xie Yalong.

Xie later told a court that police tortured him with electric shocks, beat him and doused him with water during interrogation. They denied the claims.

Next came the detention of Lou Shifang, the former general manager of Shanghai Shenhua, who won the league title in 2003. They were subsequently stripped of the crown.

The 2010 season did take place but towards the end, to prevent referees and players from fixing the outcomes of matches, half-time was extended from 15 to 30 minutes so that all second halves would kick off at the same time.

FIFA was unimpressed by the arrangement.

"This kind of behaviour amounts to amending football match rules and is obviously a violation of the rules," it said.

- 'Golden Whistle' silenced -

In the following years, a string of high-profile Chinese football figures were locked up.

"Golden Whistle" Lu was among the first to be convicted -- along with three other top referees -- in February 2012 for accepting cash to fix seven league matches. He was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison.

Former CFA bosses Nan and Xie were each jailed for about 10 years. Nan would go on to remodel himself in prison as an inventor and writer of fiction stories.

By February 2013, 33 people had been banned from Chinese football for life; 25 were handed five-year bans; and at least 12 clubs were punished, of which some were dissolved.

Chinese football has since risen in stature at club level, with large-scale investment by Chinese companies and tycoons attracting a flood of players and coaches from overseas.