China, which has been storming ahead dramatically over the past decade, has one glaring Achilles heel: football.
It claims to have invented the game, way back in the Han dynasty (206BC to 220 AD), when men and women in long robes first began kicking a stitched leather ball around. Today the modern version has more fans in China – one-quarter of its 1.3 billion population follow the game – than in any other country in the world.
Yet the national team is languishing in the sport's deepest basement, 97th out of 100 Fifa teams, with minnows like Zambia and Malawi outplaying it. During its only World Cup finals appearance, in 2002, it lost all three games without scoring a goal. Players are stampeding for the exit, too: the number of registered male players has collapsed from 650,000 15 years ago to 50,000 in 2008.
Now the nation's most powerful men, President Hu Jintao and Vice-President Xi Jinping, have highlighted the ugly truth behind the country's approach to the beautiful game – and the state-controlled media is echoing them.
"China's football is critically ill," the state Xinhua news agency admits. "The roots must be pulled up along with the grass." Nan Yong, the vice-president of the Chinese Football Association, said: "If match-fixing and gambling remain rampant as now, Chinese soccer will be dead."
This frank admission of the problem comes as the authorities begin a high-profile clean-up operation, focusing on a crackdown on gambling rings. An earlier attempt to cleanse the sport resulted in the dismissal of a single referee. This time the authorities insist they will do better. "In [football's] abyss," Xinhua said dramatically, "the law enforcers finally unleashed their lightning strength."
All gambling is illegal in China, and the dragnet has so far caught a number of former top players and officials who are suspected of "manipulating domestic soccer matches through commercial bribery". The poverty of the Chinese game, which has none of the satellite TV riches of European leagues, makes it fatally susceptible to bribery by criminal gangs involved in illegal gambling on results.
Last month, police detained four former club officials who have been accused of fixing matches since 2006 and betting on foreign websites. The suspects were from clubs ranging from the top-flight Super League (CSL) to the First Division, as well as from local leagues.
Central to the investigation was Wang Xin, a former player from Liaoning, who had previously fled Singapore where he was linked to match-rigging. The police say he colluded with managers from other clubs to change results and had fixed several First Division league matches since 2006, receiving 200,000 yuan from Guangzhou's deputy manager, Yang Xu, to fix a game.
Yang himself has admitted his role. "There have been secret rules in Chinese soccer," he confessed. "I thought since everything was doing it [bribing and fixing matches], we would suffer for our honesty if we didn't follow the practice. I know it was wrong, but I thought we could get away with it."
Yang Xu is accused of giving a bribe to the manager of a team called Shanxi Wellsend's to ensure Guangzhou won – which they duly did, by five goals to one. The Shanxi manager is alleged to have bet on his team losing with an overseas football gambling syndicate which may have put up the money for the original bribe.
China's legendary performance in the Olympics makes its poor standards of football look even worse, and ordinary fans are frustrated.
"I used to watch Chinese football games, even in my twenties," said Xiaoxiao, 26, from Shandong province. "But the games were boring and the teams didn't play well. I'm pessimistic."
Meng Xiajie, a 29-year-old teacher from Beijing, and a Manchester United fan, said: "A long time ago, I used to watch the national team or Beijing Guoan. But they have so many problems. I feel sometimes Chinese football is hopeless. But still in my heart I hope one day we will have great Chinese players."Reuse content