木制吊环

New broom has work cut out to clean up soccer

Release time:2023-10-27 Publisher:South Asia Development

Senior sports official Song Kai was elected president of the Chinese Football Association in Beijing last week. The 58-year-old Song, head of the Administration of Sport in Northeast China's Liaoning province, has been working as deputy head of the preparatory group for the CFA election since June, as the majority of the previous CFA board members were probed for graft, including former CFA president Chen Xuyuan.

Another four people, including Sun Wen, Chinese women's football legend, were elected vice-presidents of the CFA at the same time. Sun was the only vice-president of the previous board who remains in that position.

The investigation into the CFA corruption also implicated Du Zhaocai, former deputy head of the General Administration of Sport of China, who was sacked earlier this year and put under investigation for taking bribes and power abuses. It remains unknown whether more senior officials will be caught in the net of the probe.

Notably, in his first meeting with the CFA members and the media outlets as CFA chair on Wednesday, Song defined the guideline for the new board with five words - stability, accuracy, strictness, innovation and pragmatism - and vowed to do more field research to make the regulations and policies more scientific and reasonable than before.

The veteran sports official apparently wants to adopt a more pragmatic working style. But few people think that the problems with Chinese soccer can be resolved by reshuffling the CFA board. Most of the problems are structural and systemic that are related to not only the blurred boundaries between the soccer market and the administration, but also the overall backwardness of soccer structure, particularly youth training and the professionalization of the sport, which has arguably the most fans in China among all countries.

Since most of the new CFA board members are from the sport administration system, rather than clubs or other sectors related to the soccer market as before, as is the case in almost all countries that are strong in soccer, it seems to be a sign that the country is prepared to re-embrace the former State-run soccer system after the market reform of Chinese soccer since 1994 has proved to be a failure.

A pressing problem is that most of the clubs are already on the verge of bankruptcy due to the downward pressure on the economy, particularly the fall of the real estate industry that used to be a main source of funding for clubs over the past decade.

During that period of time, a host of foreign players and coaches flocked to China, keen to join the gold rush. The pursuit of quick returns meant youth training was largely ignored as buying foreign players, and naturalizing them in the case of the national team, was believed to be a shortcut to success. But that model is comparable to pulling up seedlings to help them grow.

Will local governments, which also face grave debt issues themselves, take over these clubs after their sponsors' withdrawal, as required by a State-run system? Who will pay for the huge historical debts of the clubs, not to mention the rebuilding of a national youth training system? Such are the questions Song and his colleagues will have to find answers to before implementing their "five-word" guideline.