China sets up task force to end soccer scandals

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Chinese football fans are as passionate and loyal as supporters anywhere, but the Beautiful Game in China is not a pretty sight these days and devotees on the terraces from Dalian to Shenzhen to Beijing have had their patience sorely tested.

The top-flight China Super League has been blasted by match-fixing, dodgy decisions by corrupt referees known as "black whistles", protesting players walking off the pitch en masse, bent strikers missing clear opportunities and goalkeepers letting the simplest of saves slip through their fingers to meet the demands of crooked gambling syndicates.

In 1997, 90,000 fans packed the Workers' Stadium in the capital to watch Beijing Guo'an thrash bitter rivals Shanghai Shenhua 9-1. But attendances have plummeted by two-thirds at some Super League matches and Chinese football is in disgrace.

Now the China Football Association has been pressed into doing something to stop the rot and has set up an anti-corruption task force with the police to make the playing fields level again.

Choosing the right tactics to stop graft has become a national sport in China these days; the head of the Communist Party in Shanghai was sacked last month after a widescale fraud investigation into pension funds. So it was no surprise to hear the China FA was taking action about the Super League, itself set up in 2004 to try to clean up the old Division A, which also suffered from rampant bribery and bungs.

Gambling has been illegal since the Communists took power in 1949, but illegal betting is still widespread, particularly on football matches, and the spread of online gambling has led to even more punters taking a flutter on the outcome of a match.

During this summer's World Cup, police smashed gambling rings responsible for attracting bets worth hundreds of millions of pounds. The 2003-04 season was particularly bad for corruption. Beijing Hyundai walked off the pitch during a league game with Shenyang Jinde after a blatantly dodgy penalty decision. Seven of the 12 top-flight clubs threatened to quit unless something was done about corruption.

The league has had to start a month late some years because of cash crunches at even top clubs such as Shenzhen Jianlibao.

Sports administrators and police have promised harsh penalties for cheating officials, referees or players. The new task force will be led by the Chinese FA's Nan Yong and Wu Mingshan of the state police. Some of the top clubs have written contracts allowing them to reclaim salaries from a player if they are found to be match-fixing.

It is possible that this task force will be too little too late. The crisis in the Super League killed a lot of local interest in football, particularly when allied with the national team's failure to qualify for the World Cup since 2002. Some top clubs went bankrupt.

Many Chinese fans now prefer to watch the English Premier League, Spanish Primera Liga or the German Bundesliga, making sponsors difficult to attract.