HONG KONG - The arrest and later release in China of a senior Nike executive as
part of investigations into match-fixing and other corrupt activities in the
country's soccer leagues has added an international dimension to what has long
been a running sore in the game.
Li Tong, Nike China's marketing director, was held by police in Shenyang,
Liaoning province, on September 8, when he was questioned about the US-based
sportswear giant's sponsorship deal, worth up to US$200 million, with the
professional Chinese Super League (CSL). He was also quizzed about his
relationship with Nan Yong, a former vice-chairman of the Chinese Football
Association (CFA). Nan was arrested in January on bribe-taking and match-fixing
Li was later released and was back to work on September 17, a Nike employee in
Beijing, who asked not to be named, told Asia Times Online. "Now he will take
days off until the National Day holiday from October 1 to 8. I think he's ok.
It's a big relief for us," said the employee.
Nike Greater China issued a statement saying the company had not been contacted
by the authorities in China in relation to the Super League.
A CFA probe launched early this year into bribery, match-fixing and gambling
related to soccer fixtures has so far led to nine former officials of the
organization being arrested on corruption charges or put under investigation.
They include ex-vice president Xie Yalong, former head of the national soccer
team Wei Shaohui, and Li Dongsheng, one-time head of the referees' commission.
Senior government officials and commentators have acknowledged that corruption
is now present at all levels of the game, from the national side, to the CSL,
down through more junior leagues of both men's and women's soccer all the way
to youth games.
"National teams, no matter at what level, carry numerous problems," senior
government official Wu Qi said earlier this year at the National People's
Congress. Wu is disciplinary inspection chief for the General Administration of
Sport (GAS), which appoints CFA officials and decides its budget.
"There is no single field in the football sector in China that can be
absolutely clean, " Liu Xiaoxin, editor in chief of Soccer News, an influential
sports newspaper, told Global Times after four referees were arrested.
Nike signed a 10-year sponsorship contract with the CFA earlier last year,
paying $15 million in gear and cash the first 12 months. The deal included
uniforms for all teams in the CSL - now in its seventh season - footballs and
clothes for referees and match officials. The value of the sponsorship may
increase by 10% each year, for a total of more than $200 million.
Investigators are looking into the relatively low price of the Nike sponsorship
deal, the Eastern Sports Daily reported, citing unnamed police sources. The CFA
controls 36% of the shares of the Chinese Super League, with 16 clubs taking 4%
each, Global Times reported.
Over the past decade, soccer's popularity in China has tumbled along with the
quality of its national side. Attendance at the top soccer league in 1998
averaged more than 20,000 per match, but mid-table games may now consider
themselves fortunate to attract up to 8,000 fans. The number of players has
collapsed from 600,000 in 1996 to 40,000, according to Chinese media.
China's international standing has plummeted to 82nd under the rankings of the
ruling body FIFA, from 37th in 1998, although under head coach Gao Hongbo, who
took charge of the national team in May 2009, it has recovered some ground
since January last year, when the country was ranked 104th.
Even so, soccer in China continues to attract sponsors, including Italy-based
tire producer Pirelli, albeit it a reduced price of involvement. US drinks
giant Pepsi paid more than 110 million yuan (US$16.4 million) to become the
league's leading sponsor in 2002, but the market value plunged to 45 million
yuan in the first year of Pirelli Tyre's sponsorship in 2009, according to
Beijing-based Global Times. Pirelli's deal still has about 15 months to go.
British Internet-telecoms provider Iphox agreed to an eight-year deal with the
CFA in March 2006 but cut this to one year in the middle of that season, with
only 10% of the 6 million euros (US$8 million) deal paid. The CFA sued and is
waiting for a court ruling.
Gan Yao, a senior sports reporter and senior researcher on referees, said the
CFA requires thorough restructuring.
"If the CFA still lacks transparency and has the final say in selection of the
sponsorships, the national team and coaches, the crackdowns will not help root
out corruption across the country's soccer field, so an all-round reform of the
CFA is needed," he said.
That may already be underway. Li Chengpeng, a popular sports columnist and one
of three authors of the Inside Story of Chinese Soccer, wrote in his
blog after the arrest of Xie and Nan that Nan was "not the big fish" and that
Cui Dalin, until last month the deputy sports minister and the man considered
the architect of the country's table-topping medal haul at the Beijing Summer
Olympic Games "will be the target [of the police]".
Cui, the highest-ranking official in charge of soccer in China's sports
governing body, was forced by the State Council, or central government cabinet,
to quit his post on August 19, China News Service reported. Cui, now 61, was
expected to retire last year but he decided to remain in the position.
He has been replaced by Cai Zhenhua, 49, a former national table tennis player,
president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association and GAS vice-president.
Olivia Chung is a senior Asia Times Online reporter.