China makes new push against football rigging
As China's most notorious football manager, Wang Po seemingly would stop at little to fix matches - drugging players, threatening coaches, and witholding pay from uncooperative players. Those were amid allegations that prompted his recent arrest. The claims, spread widely in the Chinese media and Internet, are the latest to cloud the game in China, where football is widely popular but the national team punches far below its weight internationally. Now that lowly international record - Olympic powerhouse China is ranked No. 97 in the world, sandwiched between Albania and Cuba - has spurred an overdue cleanup of the professional domestic league, exposing Wang's alleged schemes. Detained amid a crackdown, the details of which remain murky, he now faces likely criminal charges for gambling, bribery and other crimes. Reformers say getting rid of Wang and others is key to making the professional league competitive again, progress they hope will in turn boost China's national team. "People threw matches while others made bets because they thought no one would come after them," Beijing sports commentator Liang Yan said on a recent televised panel discussion. "Grabbing Wang Po and others like him has to be a warning that if you rig matches, you won't get away with it." Gambling allegations are as old as Chinese professional football, but intensified after the establishment of the top-tier Chinese Super League in 2004. With China's rigid media restrictions being relatively looser when it comes to sports, newspapers soon filled their pages with accounts of bribed referees in what became known as the "black whistle" scandal. Around the same time, China's national team fell into a slump following their inaugural World Cup appearance in 2002. China failed to qualify for both the 2006 competition in Germany and next year's World Cup in South Africa, as its ranking slid to an all-time low of 108 from its historic high of 37 in 1998. Football's slump was made all the more galling because it came as China's athletes were dominating other international events, capped by topping the gold medal tally at last year's Beijing Olympics. Vice President Xi Jinping mused on a recent trip to Germany that China was capable of winning gold in any sport but football. "We've got to resolve to do something to raise it up, but this is going to take a long time," Xi said. Typically of China, where a single word from high up can overcome years of inertia and opposition, Xi's statement seems to have triggered fresh reform efforts. Right on cue, the national police went public last month with the first revelations about a major crackdown, turning Wang Po overnight into the face of the problems in the domestic league. Wang was one of just four suspects named in the reports, out of 16 former players and officials detained. The media reports portray Wang as a consummate conman, an ex-soldier who called himself "the colonel" and wore a bogus army uniform while selling his schemes under the protection of powerful friends. They said he was forced to flee his native northeast in 1996 after embezzling funds from an industrial zone he started and ran, leaving behind massive debts. Soon after, Wang reportedly found a new graft in football, serving as general manager of the Shaanxi Guoli team in northern China while fixing matches and raking in profits by betting against his own team. In one of the most damning allegations against Wang, Shaanxi's former goalkeeper, Jiang Hong, said in a recent interview with national broadcaster CCTV that Wang spiked his beer with the amphetamine ecstasy ahead of a 2002 match in the central city of Wuhan. The following year, Wang engineered a 5-1 loss to a team from the southwestern province of Sichuan, allegedly reaping a 70 million yuan ($10 million) pay-day, according to the newspaper Southern Weekend. To make his schemes work, Wang had to exclude uncooperative players from the side and lock the team's foreign coach in his hotel, the newspaper said. Other players were induced to take part by witholding their salaries or cutting them in on a share, it said. Unsurprisingly, Shaanxi fell in the tables and eventually went bankrupt. Wang is also blamed with destroying the prospects of another four teams he was involved with. However, some commentators have questioned whether, given estimates of up to 100 billion yuan ($14.6 billion) gambled each year on the Chinese league, Wang and the others arrested in the last crackdown can only be considered minor players, said sports blogger Li Chengpeng. "These 16 are nothing but little bugs. What then do we do about the big scary tigers?" Li wrote in a recent blog entry on his blog. Investigators have promised to release further details about the investigation soon, but other commentators say things may not be nearly as dire as they seem. Financially, the 16-team China Super League is in better shape than it has been in years, with attendance hitting a record average of 16,300 last season. Sponsors Nike and Pirelli have made a combined annual commitment of 150 million yuan ($22 million) in the competition. "There is an element of calculated risk, but the league has now reached the stage where it is such excellent value," said Tim Maitland, director of sports marketing for public relations firm Hill & Knowlton Asia Ltd. "The league is really a microcosm of China in general and is going through the same growing pains.