China has launched a crackdown on match-fixing and corruption in soccer with the arrests of more than 20 sports officials, including the president and two coaches of a team owned by Sheffield United.
Zhang Weizhe, the coach of its Hong Kong-based offshoot, and two other men linked to the Yorkshire club are suspected of buying promotion, bribing referees and using club funds for private business.
The three men were arrested in a crackdown on one of the world’s most scandal plagued leagues after Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) called for a clean-up.
So far 22 people, including a chairman, managers, players and officials have been caught in the dragnet, which has confirmed many of the worst fears of supporters at the state of a sport in China that is notorious for “black whistles” — the local term for rigged games.
Sheffield United are not implicated in any wrongdoing, but the English Championship club may be forced to reconsider their investment in Chinese soccer. In 2006, they became the first foreign club to buy a Chinese team —- renamed the Chengdu Blades — which is now another high-profile subject of the police investigation.
The Chengdu president, Tony Xu — an entrepreneur who studied for his MBA at Sheffield University — was detained last month. He and his deputy, You Kewei, are accused of bribing a Qingdao club official in 2007 to fix a match that helped their team get promoted to the top flight.
According to prosecutors, they fixed the season’s deciding game by paying the opposition 300,000 yuan (£27,000) and promising to invest 200,000 yuan in training facilities and a players’ dormitory.
Xu is a charismatic wheeler-dealer whose love of soccer and command of English helped him to build strong UK links. He played a central role in the 2005 transfer of Hao Haidong — who had 100 caps for China — to Sheffield United for £1. He reportedly also helped to arrange the ill-fated transfer of Paul Gascoigne to Gansu Tianmu in 2003.
Former associates say Xu’s downfall may have been a tendency to mix club affairs with his own business. Li Chengpeng, the author of an expose of soccer corruption in China, said Xu used club funds, mostly those provided by Sheffield United, to buy 4 hectares of land for development. A local government official granted the purchase on condition that Chengdu won promotion, Li said.
“Buying victory is very common. Xu is by no means the worst offender,” Li said. “He is popular. He lived a simple life. He really did help to give Sichuan a decent team and facilities for the first time.”
Li expressed concern that the arrests might undermine confidence in Chinese soccer.
“I hope that’s not the case. Chinese football is eager for direction and management from UK,” he said.
A representative of Sheffield United said the club were aware of the situation, but had no comment.
Soccer’s endemic corruption in China is no secret. Nan Yong, the vice-president of the Chinese Football Association, has described match-fixing as a cancer that needs to be removed.
Many of the problems are related to gambling. Although betting on matches is illegal, online bookies — many of them run by UK firms on overseas servers — do billions of dollars of business every year.
Chinese gambling cartels have gone to extraordinary lengths to fix games, including buying second and third division clubs in Finland, Belgium and eastern Europe and then replacing the manager and best players to ensure they lose heavily.
Buying a game in China is far easier because the salaries of all but a handful of star players and referees are so low. When former Chelsea manager John Hollins joined Shenyang Tiger Star from Stockport in 2004, he found the players living in the changing room and almost too undernourished to train properly.
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