The Chinese State and Soccer Credibility

With China cleaning its soccer house, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos writes that “deep structural obstacles” remain that will keep any quick fix out of reach:

One problem, for instance, is the controlling instinct of the state: to this day, an old-line Soviet-style system still chooses soccer players to be groomed based on height and measurements when they are barely into their teens (a phenomenon I described in the world of Chinese boxing in 2008). In doing so, the system has largely cost itself the prospect of magical outliers, like the beefy Maradona or the mini Lionel Messi, who persisted even after he was told he was “too small to play” as a kid.

But, as with so many area of Chinese economics and politics, that state system was mated with a fitful free market and supercharged with cash, without an accountable bureaucracy to keep an eye on it. Ever since the early nineties, China has allowed some of its state-run teams to acquire corporate sponsorships and investors, and dole out higher salaries. But it was so swiftly overrun by gamblers with the power to fix games that the carmaker Geely dropped its support of a club in 2001, after less than a year. “I was shocked,” Geely’s chief, Li Shufu, told reporters. “For a match, bribes of a million, two million yuan”—a hundred fifty to three hundred thousand dollars—“were offered, and not a single football official or referee ever got caught.”

Credibility has sunk so far that in the stands these days, fans shout hei shao (black whistle) or da jiaqiu (playing fake ball). Perhaps the greatest indication that the current wave of arrests is likely to yield more headlines than difficult reforms is that some of the people who know the system best are not holding back their views. “Will Chinese soccer be free of corruption after this houseclean? I am not that optimistic,” former Zhejiang sports chief Chen Peide, whose public revelations about soccer corruption led to the first wave of arrests more than a decade ago, told Chinese reporters. “It will take long time to solve the problem because the current system is a hotbed for corruption,” he said.

Still, the Chinese Super League plows ahead with the announcement that soccer star Didier Drogba has signed a lucrative contract with local club Shanghai Shenhua. CNN’s Tom McGowan questions why Drogba, who recently scored the game-winning penalty to win the European championship for English club Chelsea, would make the move to a “football backwater”:

“All these players going over there are past their prime and looking for one last big payday which will see them through for the rest of their lives,” football agent Rob Shields told CNN. “It’s definitely money motivated.

“It’s the commercial side of it. That’s what Chinese clubs pitch to the players and their agents. It’s not the standard of football they are used to, but the money they can make on the commercial side is absolutely immense.”

Drogba’s former Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka made the switch in January, joining Shenhua on a two-year deal.

Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi was recently appointed at Guangzhou Evergrande, an ambitious club which has splashed out on South American players Dario Conca of Argentina and Paraguay’s Lucas Barrios.

Where Shanghai and Guangzhou are concerned, the recruitment drive is being funded by wealthy individuals who, according to Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business strategy at England’s Coventry University, see football as a way to gain political influence.