Anti-corruption storm sheds light on Chinese soccer's revitalization
Published: Feb 06, 2023 11:40 PM
Illustration: Liu Xidan/Global Times

Illustration: Liu Xidan/Global Times

Chinese soccer is witnessing another anti-corruption storm more than one decade after the large-scale 2009-13 investigation into soccer gambling, bribery and match-fixing that resulted in the imprisonment of dozens of senior soccer officials, players, coaches and referees.

An investigation has been launched into former midfield star and Chinese men's national soccer team head coach Li Tie for suspected severe violation of laws.

Li is being investigated by a discipline inspection and supervision team stationed at the General Administration of Sport of China. The team was sent by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China and the National Supervision Commission of the People's Republic of China, and the Hubei provincial commission of supervision, according to a November 2022 statement.

In January, former Chinese Football Association (CFA) secretary-general Liu Yi and former executive deputy secretary-general of the CFA Chen Yongliang were being investigated for a suspected "severe violation of the law." Both are reportedly connected with Li's case.

According to media reports, a total of six people, including one player and one general manager of Chinese Super League (CSL) Shenzhen FC, have been taken away to "assist the investigation" into match-fixing accusations related to the team's 4-4 draw in 2019 with Wuhan Zall, which was then coached by Li. The Wuhan club later changed their name to Wuhan Changjiang FC, which was dissolved after an announcement in January 2023 stating the club was withdrawing from any competition managed by the CFA.

With more high-ranking officials and famous personnel involved, it's not surprising that soccer fans would be reminded of the last campaign in which Chinese soccer cracked down on corruption. During that crackdown, Xie Yalong, Nan Yong and Yang Yimin, all former vice presidents of the CFA, were arrested, among other officials. Lu Jun, the first and only Chinese referee who have ever officiated the FIFA World Cup games, was sentenced to jail after having admitted to taking bribes to fix the results of several league games. Several famous soccer players were also put behind bars for match-fixing.

In the past few years after that crackdown, Chinese soccer witnessed a short spell under the spotlight, while clubs spent big on international and domestic players, as well as world-famous coaches. Chinese soccer frequently made headlines in global media with these big-money signings. On the pitch, more and more people inside and outside the country began to pay attention to the CSL and some even called it the world's sixth soccer league, after the five major leagues in Europe. Chinese clubs also became a dominant force in Asia, with Guangzhou Evergrande being crowned the Asian Champions League winners twice. 

But the bubble soon burst and many clubs were left in trouble with financial or legal issues. Even the once almighty Evergrande, which was later renamed as Guangzhou FC, was relegated from the Chinese top flight. A number of clubs chose to quit soccer while some others are still struggling with their fates up in the air. But at least there were hopes in Chinese soccer for a period after the crackdown on corruption.

Although not many details concerning Li's case have been revealed, soccer fans are hoping it signals another large-scale anti-corruption storm and more corrupt "big fish" will be caught in the net, thus uprooting corruption in the sport. 

May this be an opportunity for Chinese soccer to ride the wave of this storm and embark on the road to revitalization.