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THE WORLD

Bribery Scandal Kicks Up a Controversy in Chinese Soccer

Sports: Allegations of corruption in the pro game take the luster off the nation's upcoming World Cup finals debut.

April 07, 2002|CHING-CHING NI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HANGZHOU, China — The Chinese felt on top of the world. For the first time, their national soccer team had made it to the World Cup finals. It was seen as one more sign that the motherland had come of age on the international stage.

But before the country could sober up from the surge of nationalism after last fall's success, a corruption scandal involving game-rigging and referee-bribing has given this soccer-crazed nation a fresh kick in the face.

It's the kind of dirty laundry nobody wants to air, especially before the start in May of the World Cup finals, which will open in South Korea and Japan.

Match-fixing scandals have on occasion marred the sport in Europe and Latin America. But it appears that the practice has been more widespread in China.

The world's most-populous nation can ill-afford to have its image tarnished. China is in the spotlight as a new member of the World Trade Organization and the host of the 2008 Olympics. The international community is looking for signs that this country can respect the rules of the game and engage in fair play--on and off the field.

"We knew [Chinese soccer] was dirty. But we didn't know it was this dirty," said Song Weiping, a real estate developer and owner of Zhejiang Lucheng, a professional soccer club based in this picturesque lakeside city. He is one of the two whistle-blowers who broke the silence on the game's open secret.

"It was only after we got into the business that we realized giving money to referees was standard operating procedure," Song said. "I can say nine out of 10 referees have been offered bribes or have accepted bribes. Even the most conservative estimates put the number at 50%."

Perhaps nothing stands out more as a negative trademark of post-Mao China than corruption. It greases the wheels of fortune in many walks of life, as the Communist country shifts from central planning to a more competitive economy. Some reports by Chinese academics put the economic losses resulting from graft at between 13% and 17% of the gross domestic product. The issue threatens the Communist Party's legitimacy and social stability.

And professional soccer, a relatively new business in China, already has the potential to trigger strife in a nation with an estimated 300 million fans who are prone to staging mass protests or celebrations over the outcomes of games. Last month, officials temporarily banned professional games in the city of Xian after fans set fire to stadium seats and attacked police following a tied game.

The match-rigging scandal might never have come out into the open if the two club owners had not done what no one else dared: confessed to their roles in the scheme.

"Of course, there is still the possibility I might go to jail for it," Song said during an interview in his chauffeured black Mercedes. "But if we don't expose it, Chinese soccer will have no future."

So far, the matter remains bogged down in red tape. The Chinese Soccer Assn., which governs professional soccer, conducted an investigation but took no action, citing a lack of evidence.

Last month, however, the country's highest court told state media that game-rigging could be considered commercial fraud and not just a sports offense, opening the door to possible legal action.

Cynical fans doubt that justice would result from any prosecution. Some say they admire Song for telling the truth but wonder whether he would have spoken up if his team had not lost several important games.

The scandal erupted last fall while China was still reveling in World Cup euphoria.

In a generally low-scoring sport, a Sichuan team hoping to move up in the standings defeated another team from Sichuan by a lopsided 11-2.

A week later, Song's Zhejiang Lucheng lost a game 6-0, with four of the goals scored during the final eight minutes. In another game involving the team, a referee awarded a questionable goal to the opponents from Shanghai that had been made while Song's players were still taking their place on the field.

Song fired five of his players, suspecting that they had taken money from the other side.

"I've never lost in my life 6-0," said Antony Grdic, 26, the team's Croatian defender. "I'm ashamed."

Public outrage forced the soccer association to act. It slapped six suspected clubs with fines and suspensions. The latter cost Song 14 key players and the coach, making it difficult for the team to remain competitive in the new season, which is underway.

That triggered the counteroffensive by Zhejiang and the Guangdong Geely club, which led to a scandal labeled Heishao, or Black Whistle. The name played off the Golden Whistle, an award for best referee of the year. The allegations focused on the officials.

"The going rate for referees is about $7,300 a game," Song said, a lot of money in China for part-time referees. "At first, we refused to do it. But our coach convinced us that if the other team pays up and we don't, the referee could easily lean in their favor."

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