The first title for Beijing's most popular club may be a portent of the future for a culture mired in corruption at club level and failure at international level. Beijing Guoan, the Chinese capital's favourite football club, won its first Super League title in October. Its fans, management and China's leadership are taking the event as a sign of better times. After one of the most successful seasons since China's top flight was inaugurated in 1994, it has begun the slow process of shaking off its corrupt image and giving fans more of what they want.
Last year 190 million viewers tuned into watch the Super League, a record figure and a significant gain from 137 million in 2008. Nearly 4 million spectators went to Super League matches last year, with an average attendance in the stadiums increasing to 16,300. Though the above statistics show the Chinese are mad about football, the Beautiful Game has experienced some ugly moments in recent years as the Super League has struggled to deal with illegal gambling rings, corrupt referees known as "black whistles" and match-fixing accusations.
Corruption in Chinese football works very much along the same lines as in other sectors of society, where some US$34.4 billion (Dh126.34bn) went missing from the public purse in the first 11 months of last year. Although the government has made great progress in stamping out corruption, commercial bribery is considered a common practice in China and many people complain loudly about officials taking bribes in retfor facilitating business deals.
The areas that tend to be most prone to corruption include project tendering and construction, land transfers, drug and medical apparatus purchases and government procurement. The costs of corruption to the economy could be as much as Dh316bn each year, a 2007 report from the Carnegie Endowment said. The absence of competitive political process and free press makes many sectors susceptible to fraud, theft, kickbacks, and bribery, the report said. Those same headaches also rear their heads in sport, with major Chinese leagues in football and basketball being no exception.
"Chinese football has got some problems," admits Zhang Lu, Beijing Guoan's manager and vice president. "It's really been through a bad patch, but I think we are seeing signs of an upturn now. We had difficulties in the management of the league, but now the government is paying a lot of attention to these issues and are coming up with practical and effective ways of dealing with the problems." Corruption in the game three seasons ago nearly finished football in China. There were regular reports of perfectly good goals being disallowed and of dodgy goals being allowed to stand, as well as of referees blowing final whistles surprisingly early.
While this happens in every league around the world, in China's case it has been shown to be systematic efforts by referees to control the outcome of matches because of links to illegal gambling. The Beijing Hyundai side marched off the pitch during a league game with Shenyang Jinde a few years ago after a blatantly wrong penalty decision. To cap it all, China's national team continues to underperform, particularly when compared to the country's outstanding achievements in the Olympics.
Just as corruption is a serious threat to stability in China, with the Communist Party making highly public efforts to stamp out graft, cheating in football has wrought terrible damage on the game's image. Senior figures in the game and in the government are planning a counterattack to restore some of football's glory in China. Top leaders including Hu Jintao, China's president, and the vice president Xi Jinping have called for rejuvenation of the domestic game.
"The level of Chinese football is relatively low," said Mr Xi, who is widely considered to be Mr Hu's anointed successor. "But after winning so many [gold medals] in other sports at the Beijing Games, China is determined to make its football go to the top level. But this might take a long time." Broadcasting rights will be handled by a different company and the plan is to broadcast 216 games in one season, he said. However, football revenues are not comparable with the sums paid to show major European leagues such as the English Premier League, where private TV companies sign big contracts with clubs for their broadcast rights.
"The Chinese league does not earn very much money because nearly all of the channels are public channels," said Mr Zhang. "Nearly all football in China is carried on public television. It's very hard to get the fans to pay for soccer on TV." No matter the revenue source, clubs suffer most from the impression that match outcomes are determined beforehand. Mr Zhang reckons more needs to be done to improve the ways referees are developed and placed to root out undue influence.
"The system of appointing refs is very important," he said. "He has to be trustworthy. All over the world it's difficult to judge a referee, but there is no doubt in China that people from different interested parties try to bribe referees." China's main professional basketball league has also been hurt by allegations games are fixed, The New York Times has reported. To encourage more young people to watch the game, children need to be prompted to play the game more often to boost its profile against sports including basketball. The US's National Basketball Association features China's Yao Ming and draws large television audiences.
"It's not basketball we're competing with. Chinese children don't play games anymore, they just study," Mr Zhang said. Football's status in China is not helped by the fact that its national side is ranked a lowly 97th in the FIFA world rankings and did not qualify for this year's World Cup soccer finals in South Africa. Ordinary fans are frustrated with the state of the sport. "I used to watch Chinese soccer games. Even when I was 22 I went to stadium with my father to watch a soccer game," said Xiaoxiao, 26, from Shandong province. "But the games were boring and the teams didn't play well. I'm pessimistic.
Rather than root for a local club, Meng Xiajie, a teacher from Beijing, is a major supporter of the English side Manchester United. "A long time ago, I used to watch Chinese soccer games, like the national team or Beijing Guoan," she said. "But I have to say I was let down. They have so many problems. The players don't play like professionals, you have the 'black whistles', game-fixing, scandals, problems with the system - I feel sometimes Chinese soccer is hopeless. But still in my heart I hope one day we will have great Chinese players.
Mr Zhang is clearly proud of his club's biggest moment, when the Honduran forward Emil Martinez scored a hat-trick to help beat Hangzhou Greentown 4-0 for the Super League title in front of 60,000 delirious spectators, sending Beijing into wild celebrations. To crown this achievement, China needs to clean up the Beautiful Game and get the business side of soccer back on to a level playing field. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org