Black whistles and rigged matches pitch China into crisis

Damaging allegations of corruption at club level and a national team in disarray are undermining Chinese attempts to attain status as a football superpower. Jasper Becker reports from Beijing
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China play the most important game in their footballing history next Wednesday when they take on Hong Kong in a match they dare not lose. The 2006 World Cup is fading from view after a loss to Kuwait and defeat to another supposedly lesser nation in Guangzhou would put an end to the country's hopes of reaching the finals in Germany.

China play the most important game in their footballing history next Wednesday when they take on Hong Kong in a match they dare not lose. The 2006 World Cup is fading from view after a loss to Kuwait and defeat to another supposedly lesser nation in Guangzhou would put an end to the country's hopes of reaching the finals in Germany.

A failure to qualify would not go down well with the Chinese footballing public; in fact riots could ensue in a country that has it all - dodgy referees, match-fixing, violent fans, world-class players, bankrupt clubs, multi-millionaire owners, a league in organisational chaos and a burning dream of World Cup glory.

All the problems China encounters as the country struggles to create the place in the world to which it believes it is entitled, given its size and population, are mirrored in football. A flawed 10-year effort to create both a professional league and a national team capable of taking on the best has become a national scandal, and is now a stalking horse for wider political reforms.

In an attempt to stave off the ignominy of missing out on the next World Cup, China pleaded with Fifa, football's world governing body, to change its rules and add an additional, deciding match to the qualifying group for the Asian zone.

Kuwait face pointless Malaysia next Wednesday and Fifa, anxious to help China, has agreed to hold the matches simultaneously in order to ease Chinese fears of match-rigging. However, even victory for China may not be enough as to progress they must beat Hong Kong by two more goals than any margin of victory achieved by Kuwait.

Earlier this year, Chinese fans rioted in Chengdu when the national side lost to Japan in a friendly, prompting lawmakers to table the country's first legislation on football hooliganism. Although anti-Japanese feelings run strong in China, the real reason is the fans' frustration that football in China, unlike in Japan or South Korea, has failed to develop. China has sent players like the Manchester City full-back Sun Jihai and Everton's Li Tie to gain experience abroad, and has imported over 50 foreign players, including Paul Gascoigne, as well as some leading coaches - but the national game remains a shambles.

Now, in a further humiliation, Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation have jointly and formally demanded an explanation from the China Football Association (CFA) for the turmoil that brought the Chinese Super League close to collapse last week.

The letter sought an explanation of the walk-out by Beijing Guoan in a Super League match against Shenyang Jinde at the beginning of October, amid accusations of match-fixing. Since then, the leading clubs have threatened to boycott the league and start a new one of their own.

Since professional football was launched 10 years ago, the game has been plagued by corruption, mismanagement and constantly changing rules. Fans and sponsors have deserted teams in protest. The teams have abused their loyalty, sometimes even changing names even in mid-season - as with Beijing Guoan, which is now called Beijing Hyundai, or sometimes Beijing Xiandai.

Owners have come and gone with bewildering speed, despairing of ever reaping any profits from investments totalling £60m. The Super League is supposed to be run by the CFA but the central government calls the shots in the form of the Football Sport Management Centre of the State General Administration of Sports - which takes the old East Germany as its model.

According to an online survey conducted by Chinese state television, football fans believe that more than half of First Division games in 2003 were rigged and are now boycotting live games in a wave of silent protest. This January the CFA tried to make a fresh start by creating a new Super League which had 12 instead of 15 teams, much tighter rules and a new image.

But five months later the league descended into a fresh crisis. The trigger was the aforementioned game last month, when the coach of Beijing Hyundai took his players off the pitch after the referee had given a penalty to their opponents, Shengyang, for a questionable foul. The referee, Zhou Weixin, awarded a 3-0 win to the home team, Shenyang.

Beijing Hyundai appealed but the CFA stuck to the 3-0 ruling despite recognising that the referee had made the wrong decision over the penalty. Zhou was banned for eight matches but Beijing were stripped of three points and fined 300,000 yuan (£20,000).

Beijing Hyundai's manager, Yang Zuwu, responded with a public tirade. "Some clubs, some players, even some coaches, referees and other related people are involved in gambling on matches and other things," he said. A wealthy industrialist, Xu Ming, chairman of the Dalian Shide club, came out in support and said this was the last chance for reform.

"Chinese football has been troubled with betting on games by players and black whistles [corrupt referees]," he said. "The CFA has never let us know their accounting records or how they (have) run the league financially for 10 years. Chinese clubs should unite to deal with these problems."

Soon afterwards his Dalian Shide players also stormed off the pitch in a match against Shenyang, after another alleged refereeing "blunder". Seven of the 12 leading teams then insisted that the CFA should make public its balance sheet over the past 10 years in order to clean up the allegations of match-fixing - otherwise they would not play any more matches.

The CFA cautiously agreed to make public its financial records for 2004, but nothing for the previous 10 years. The chairman of the CFA, Yan Shiduo, rejected calls for his resignation and said there would be no relegation from the Super League this season. Meanwhile a commission has been set up to look at ways to clean up the game.

"We cannot find any way out if we don't carry out reform on collapsing Chinese football," Yan said. "The CFA will give full consideration to the interest of clubs and help these money-losing clubs build up confidence and hope to make a profit from football."

The saga has gripped a nation angered by widespread government corruption in all fields, suffocating controls over the media and a ban on any unauthorised political activities. The threat of a boycott has been a shocking affront to the all-powerful, Communist Party-backed CFA, and may herald bigger changes off the pitch.