Corruption has no place in soccer or any other sports

Editor's note: Beginning with a crackdown on corruption in China's soccer, the country's soccer development, especially on the men's side, needs an overhaul with an emphasis on the fight against corruption within the governing body and a focus on youth promotion, writes a veteran journalist with China Daily.

Dressing up in the locker room after a swim in an indoor gym close to my home, I overheard the conversation between two men in their early 60s.

"Now, we finally know that the development of soccer in China has stagnated because of corrupt officials," the first man, with a little beer belly, said.

"Yes. As an old saying goes: If something goes wrong, there must be a demon behind it," said the other who dressed up like a soccer player, apparently ready for exercise on a treadmill.

The two men were talking about the corruption cases in the China Football Association. According to reports from discipline authorities, nearly a dozen sports officials, including at least half a dozen senior CFA officials, have been put under investigation in the past few months.

It's not the first time the CFA has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Over the past decade or so, a number of corruption cases have been exposed with the corrupt officials, coaches being penalized for bribery, match fixing and other crimes.

This time, however, the people involved are senior officials, including a number of officials at the bureau level and one at a vice-ministerial level. Many soccer fans believe that bigger fish would be caught if the ongoing investigation digs deeper into the truth.

The corruption cases have caught the attention of the central authorities. A special 30-member inspection team has been sent to the State General Administration of Sports to see whether or not the entire administration is clean. Already, a number of officials in other departments and associations have been investigated.

Although it is still too early to say whether large-scale corruption affected the whole administration of the CFA, the already exposed cases in other departments give us enough reasons to believe the football association is not the only haven of corrupt officials.

Pushing forward their corruption-free society campaign, the central authorities have punished several dozen officials at the ministerial level and a few thousand bureau-level officials for corruption. But few reports have caught the attention of the global public like the ones on soccer corruption. The reason could be the millions of disappointed soccer fans who have been repeatedly let down by the country's soccer performance in the past two decades.

I started my journalism career as a sports reporter, and worked in that position for 10 years in the 1980s. At that time, the Chinese men's soccer team was among the top five in Asia. I still remember going to the Soviet Union in 1985 to cover the World Youth Soccer Championship in which the Chinese team squeezed into the quarterfinals. In 2002, the Chinese national men's team even qualified for the World Cup.

But since then, the Chinese team has been going down the slope. It now ranks 80 in the world. So disappointed was I with the Chinese men's soccer team that I refused to watch any Chinese men's soccer team playing. For years, we soccer fans have been puzzled by the Chinese team's poor performance when athletes in other sports are clinching more and more medals.

The country has left no stone unturned in raising the level of Chinese soccer by sending youngsters to other countries for long-time training, hiring experienced foreign coaches and introducing the club league system. But all have been in vain.

The man with a beer belly in the locker room of the swimming pool may be too biased in asserting that corruption is the only cause of Chinese soccer's decline. But corruption is certainly the demon that brought Chinese soccer to such a pass.

Some fans are worried that if the crackdown on corruption in sports doesn't have the desired effect, what will happen to Chinese soccer. But I believe that by eliminating corruption, in the long run, a cleaner and fairer environment will ensure our athletes perform much better at the World Championships.

The author is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.