Chinese soccer stars, officials detained in crackdown on Xi’s corruption | Porcelain

SErgio Agüero may be one of the greatest strikers of his generation, but he won an even rarer accolade in 2015, when he became the first and last Premier League footballer to take a selfie with Xi Jinping, the football-loving leader of China.

The photo, taken at Manchester City’s stadium with then-Prime Minister David Cameron, comes from an era when Xi was fostering warm relations with the UK and pushing China to become a global soccer superpower for 2050, both ambitions that seem like distant possibilities today.

In 2016, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) unveiled a plan to build 70,000 soccer fields and get 50 million people playing by 2020. Xi also said he wanted China to host the World Cup. But by 2021, just 27,000 courts had been built, and the government’s enthusiasm for the sport seemed to be waning. Now a corruption scandal threatens to further derail China’s beautiful game, just as stadiums begin to reopen after pandemic shutdowns.

It began in November, when Li Tie, one of the most famous figures in Chinese football, disappeared. Li, a former Everton player, had been the coach of the men’s team. Chinese authorities said he was being investigated on suspicion of “serious violations of the law.”

Sergio Aguero takes a selfie with then-Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Manchester City on October 23, 2015. Photo: Sergio Aguero/AP

Several other sports administrators were investigated, culminating in the arrest of Chen Xuyuan, president of the CFA, on February 14. It’s the most sweeping crackdown on football since Xi came to power in 2012, and it’s a “devastating blow to everyone involved in the game,” says Rowan Simons, president of ChinaClubFootball, a grassroots network. “It exposes the last 10 years of reforms as if they were wasted.”

Chen was a popular appointment for the head of the CFA in 2019. He had previously been the chairman of Shanghai International Port Group, which bought one of the city’s clubs and renamed it Shanghai Port FC in 2015, propelling the team to the victory in the Chinese Super League in 2018.

“In the past, the CFA president was always appointed by the government,” says Qi Peng, senior lecturer in sports policy and management at Manchester Metropolitan University. That sometimes resulted in Chinese soccer being run by bureaucrats with little interest in the culture or business of the game. “So when Chen was introduced as president, because he was already involved in football, that was seen as a very positive sign,” says Peng.

But Chen’s business background did not prevent him from taking part in a move to reduce commercialization of the sport, leaving many clubs in precarious financial positions.

Between 2011 and 2020, Chinese clubs spent $1.7 billion on international transfers, according to FIFA figures. Spending peaked in 2016 when the Chinese Super League spent $450 million on inbound transfers. Authorities asked why clubs were spending all this money on foreigners “who were just going to send the money somewhere else,” says Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based sports analyst, and began to block the spending.

In 2017, a 100% transfer tax was introduced on foreign players purchased for more than 45 million yuan (£5 million) and domestic players transferred for more than 20 million yuan. “That money was earmarked for grassroots development,” Simons says. “But it has disappeared.” Some worry that the money has disappeared into the pockets of corrupt officials.

Real estate firms own or part-own around half of China’s top-tier clubs. But last year, the real estate sector was affected by the pandemic and a government crackdown. Several top clubs withdrew, revealing just how precarious their business models were.

Now the CFA bets on women’s football. The best clubs must have a women’s team if they want to participate in the Chinese Super League. There is some hope that the women’s game can be a clean slate. It already performs better internationally than the men’s team, having qualified for the World Cup this year, a feat the men’s team hasn’t achieved since 2002. According to Simons, the CFA appear to be “giving up on the men’s game, which has given no more what a pity”.

Some analysts believe the arrests of Chen and Li may be politically motivated. Certainly the higher-ups in the game don’t have the same political support they once did.

The Xinjiang Flying Tigers line up before a match against the Jilin Northeast Tigers in the 2020-2021 season of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) league in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, on January 15, 2021.
The Xinjiang Flying Tigers line up before a match against the Jilin Northeast Tigers in the 2020-2021 season of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) league in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, on January 15, 2021. Photo: Xinhua/Alamy

The crackdown on soccer comes as basketball, China’s other “big ball” sport, faces a crisis that risks airing more dirt about the corruption of the Chinese sports industry in public.

Last month, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers withdrew from the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and released a statement on social media making fierce accusations against the league. The club accused the CBA of mismanagement, which it said was “the root of all kinds of chaos in Chinese basketball.” He pointed the finger squarely at Yao Ming, one of China’s biggest sports stars, who previously played in the US for the Houston Rockets and on the Chinese national team. Yao is the head of the CBA and a delegate to the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. The Tigers accused him of being responsible for blurring the line between the business and government branches of the CBA.

The Tigers have apologized and been reinstated in the league, but some have questioned if the claims can be put back in the bottle. And, as Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economics at Skema Business School, points out, “The Chinese government has taken care of everyone else… so it may well be that basketball’s time has come.”

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