Anti-graft campaign makes for promising soccer progress
Published: Mar 30, 2023 12:36 AM
Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

The ongoing anti-graft campaign in Chinese soccer saw two more senior officials who had stints with the Chinese Football Association (CFA) come under investigation on Wednesday.

The probes, heralded by the investigation into former national team coach Li Tie in November 2022, have become a storm sweeping through Chinese soccer, with officials ranging from association president to disciplinary committee members making the headlines.

Wednesday's announcement of the investigation into former vice president of the CFA Yu Hongchen could shed a light on the determination of authorities to look back at the historical management of the CFA, as Yu had moved to lead the Chinese Athletics Association in 2017.

Former general manager of the Chinese Super League (CSL) Dong Zheng, the other official targeted by the new probes, had also quit his soccer management role as he has been working with the NBA China since 2022. 

Controversies in the CSL were once hotly debated when both Dong and Yu were working for the CFA, as domestic clubs, especially several high-profile CSL clubs, were rocketing spending by signing both domestic and foreign players for outrageous amounts.

Fans also raised concerns over the contract between the CFA and US sportswear company Nike, which "monopolized" the kit sponsorship of Chinese soccer in a lucrative but undisclosed deal, as all CSL teams and the national teams are wearing the brand's jersey, in stark contrast to European top flights where club teams have their own rights to pen a contract with sportswear companies.

Wednesday also saw the CFA shorten the participating list of domestic soccer professional leagues to 16 teams, a U-turn from its expansion to increase the number of teams to 18. 

Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, was once considered a pinnacle of Chinese soccer as the city harbored eight-time CSL champions Guangzhou FC and their cross-town rivals Guangzhou City.

Facing a very different financial situation today, Guangzhou City announced on Wednesday that it was ceasing operations, while Guangzhou FC have been relegated from the top flight last season after high spending on foreign scoring powers showed inconsistent results. 

Besides Guangzhou City, five other CSL teams have been dismantled in the last four seasons, including league champions Jiangsu FC, who were dismissed in 2021 shortly after they won the league title in 2020. 

To avoid companies exploiting soccer clubs as a marketing tool, the CFA also introduced policies concerning team names at the end of 2020, preventing the name of sponsor companies appearing in a club's name. 

Some argued this dampened companies' enthusiasm over soccer, but it is a common practice in international soccer. 

Over the past four years, a total of 39 teams have quit Chinese soccer, mostly due to financial reasons, despite the CFA introducing a spending cap of 600 million yuan ($87 million) for a fiscal year. 

The spending spree in the past few years did breed corruption, thus making the newly unveiled disciplinary inspections by the national anti-graft watchdog into sports bodies, especially soccer, a necessary part of safeguarding the future development of sports in China. 

The latest CSL entry precondition has also underlined that clubs should not have any legal disputes, be they domestic or international, left unresolved. 

Though the number of teams has lowered to 16, this can make a comeback for the CFA possible as this ensures financially sustainable clubs can develop over the long haul.