If there were any doubts as to whether the Chinese authorities were serious about stamping out corruption in football before, there can’t be many left after the events of the past few days.
The former chief of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), Nan Yong, was sentenced to ten years in prison after taking bribes of $235,000.
Corruption in Chinese football has been around for years, but there’s now a sense that the game is cleaner, or at least on its way to breaking the ties between players, coaches, referees and gambling syndicates.
As well as Nan Yong, the highest profile of arrests made as part of a major clampdown in 2010, others have received similar sentences, including his predecessor at the CFA Xie Yalong.
This year, players and referees have also been hit with jail sentences for crimes against football. And there’s a feeling that while the news has put Chinese football and match-fixing in the headlines once again, that this is a necessary stage to go through.
The late 1990s and early part of the last decade were dark times for the sport (especially the Black Whistles Scandal), which meant that a first ever appearance at the World Cup in 2002 and a final appearance in the 2004 Asian Cup were soon forgotten.
The years of scandals drove fans away from the game, and sponsors soon followed. Whether the game was corrupt to the core was perhaps not that important. What mattered was that people believed that it was. But that started to change in 2010, when the government decided enough was enough. Nan Yong was arrested and succeeded by Wei Di.
It’s possibly no coincidence that Xi Jinping, expected to be the next president of the country, is a big football fan. Wei had no background in the game – a good thing – as he strived to clean the game up and just importantly demonstrate to the public that it was clean.
It helped to attract sponsors back into the game, companies such as Toshiba and Wanda. It also helped to pave the way for some of the massive investment that we’ve seen in the Chinese Super League in recent months.
Yet despite the progress made, Wei is conscious of the fact that the struggle is a constant one.
“Lessons have been learned from the scandals, but similar cases might happen again in the future. So we must stay vigilant all along,” Wei told reporters in Beijing. “We are also considering joining hands with the FIFA and Interpol in the fight against corruption to ensure a clean environment for the game.”