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, China’s football-loving leader.
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 world football superpower by 2050, both ambitions that seem distant possibilities today.
In 2016, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) unveiled a plan to build 70,000 football pitches and get 50 million people playing the game by 2020. Xi also said he wanted China to host the World Cup. But by 2021 just shy of 27,000 pitches had been built, and the government’s enthusiasm for the sport seemed to be waning. Now a corruption scandal threatens to derail China’s beautiful game even further, just as stadiums start to reopen after the pandemic lockdowns.
It started in November, when Li Tie, one of China’s most famous football figures, disappeared. Li, a former Everton player, had coached the men’s national team. The Chinese authorities said he was being investigated for suspected “serious violations of the law”.
Several other sports administrators were placed under investigation, culminating in the detention of Chen Xuyuan, the president of the CFA, on 14 February. It is the most sweeping crackdown on football since Xi came to power in 2012, and is a “devastating blow for everyone involved in the game”, says Rowan Simons, chairman of ChinaClubFootball, a grassroots network. “It exposes the last 10 years of reforms as having been wasted.”
Chen was a popular appointment for the head of the CFA in 2019. He had previously been the president of Shanghai International Port Group, which had bought one of the city’s clubs and renamed them Shanghai Port FC in 2015, propelling the team to victory in the Chinese Super League in 2018.
“In the past, the chairman of the CFA was always appointed by the government,” says Qi Peng, a senior lecturer in sport policy and management at Manchester Metropolitan University. That sometimes resulted in Chinese football being managed by bureaucrats with little interest in the culture or business of the game. “So when Chen was introduced as the chairman, because he was already involved in football, that was looked at as a very positive sign,” says Peng.
But Chen’s business background did not prevent his involvement in a movement to reduce the commercialisation of the sport, which left many clubs in financially precarious positions.
Between 2011 and 2020, Chinese clubs spent $1.7bn on international transfers, according to figures from Fifa. The spending peaked in 2016 when the Chinese Super League spent $450m on incoming transfers. Authorities asked why clubs were spending all this money on foreigners “who were just going to ship the money off somewhere else”, says Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based sports analyst, and they began blocking spending.
In 2017, a 100% transfer tax was introduced on foreign players bought for over 45m yuan (£5m) and domestic players transferred for more than 20m yuan. “That money was meant to go on grassroots development,” says Simons. “But it’s gone missing.” 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 property sector was hit by the pandemic and a government crackdown. Several major clubs folded, revealing how precarious their business models were.
Now the CFA is turning to women’s football. Top clubs are required to run 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 that the men’s team hasn’t managed since 2002. According to Simons, the CFA seems to be “giving up on the men’s game, which has given nothing but grief”.
Some analysts believe the detentions of Chen and Li could be politically motivated. Certainly, the top brass of the game do not have the same political support they once did.
The crackdown on football comes as basketball – China’s other “big ball” sport – grapples with a crisis that risks airing more dirty laundry about the graft of the Chinese sports industry in public.
Last month the Xinjiang Flying Tigers withdrew from the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), posting a statement on social media that made fiery allegations against the league. The club accused the CBA of improper management, which it said was “the root of all kinds of chaos in Chinese basketball”. It directly pointed the finger at Yao Ming, one of China’s biggest sports stars, who previously played in the US for the Houston Rockets as well as the China national team. Yao is 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 commercial and governance arms of the CBA.
The Tigers have apologised and been readmitted to the league, but some have asked whether the claims can be put back in the bottle. And, as Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School notes, “the Chinese government has dealt with everyone else … so it could well be that basketball’s time has come.”
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