By Sportswriters Ma Xiangfei and Li Zheng
SHENYANG, Northeast China, Nov. 25 (Xinhua) -- In what was regarded the biggest ever crackdown on soccer match-fixing and gambling, Chinese police have detained at least four former club officials.
An unprecedented storm is picking up to cleanse Chinese soccer which has been long ridden with scandals.
"The facts are clear that they manipulated domestic soccer matches through commercial bribery," the Ministry of Public Security told Xinhua on Wednesday in the capital city of Liaoning Province.
"(They) also placed bets on fixed games through Web sites abroad," said the Ministry who heads up the investigation believed to start over six months ago.
The first batch of suspects unveiled by the police by far were from clubs, ranging from the top flight Chinese Super League (CSL) to the First Division as well as local soccer association.
The investigation is still going on, police said. But they did not reveal how many people had been questioned in the probe or whether active players or big names were involved.
The Chinese Football Association (CFA) expressed its support despite the fact that it was marginalized in the probe.
"If match-fixing and gambling keep rampant like now, Chinese soccer will be dead," said Chinese soccer chief Nan Yong. "We are ready to pay a huge price for weeding them out once and for all."
Wang Xin a former player from Liaoning Province who later became general manager of Liaoning Guangyuan club, proved the linchpin for the police to discover more under-the-table deals as he was the first to be netted in the crackdown.
Liaoning police helped the Interpol catch Wang Xin in April and found out that before and after he fled Singapore for rigging Singaporean league matches, Wang colluded with officials from other clubs to sway Chinese First Division matches.
Police said Wang Xin, together with former Shanxi club general manager Wang Po, fixed several First Division league matches since2006.
Also dragged in the match-rigging scandal was current CSL team Guangzhou Pharmaceutical FC, promoted from the First Division in 2007.
Police said the match-fixing scam would see one side take bribes to lose but could gamble for more profit while the other side win.
"The schemes were similar. Team A would take bribes from Team B to let B win, while (players and officials) from Team A, knowing the predetermined results, would place bets on those games," said a Liaoning police officer who is on the investigation team.
Chinese soccer has been a long disappointment to the fans with its poor quality of play, violence, corruption and match-fixing.
The national men's team missed the World Cup finals next year as they had done in all the past World Cup qualifiers but one, but it was already something for the media to hail when the team scraped into the top 100, at 97th, in FIFA rankings this month.
The number of fans dwindles in the domestic leagues, which were already rocked by match-fixing scandals involving five second tier clubs in 2001.
In that case, top Chinese referee Gong Jianping was sentenced to 10 years in jail after convicted of receiving bribes in January2003 and died of cancer six months later. No more criminal charges were made despite that some club owner openly admitted sending bribes.
Xinhua sportswriter Yang Ming said he had quit watching Chinese soccer matches after he wrote the book "Black Whistles" in 2002.
"During my investigation, I realized results of so many matches were predetermined. I felt I had been fooled," said Yang, who became the first Chinese journalist to receive the Ronald Reagan Media Award in 2004 for his book.
Although China launched professional leagues 16 year ago, the most popular sport seemed to have lost its charm as the "beautiful game" in the most populous country.
The number of registered male footballers dropped from the peak of 650,000 15 years ago to 50,000 last year, the Liaoning-based Peninsula Morning Post reported.
National team coaches only had a small pool of 400 players to choose for their 2012 London Olympic team, it said.
Compared with the previous efforts, mostly from the CFA, China showed firmer determination this time to cure the "cancer" through a unified task force.
A coordination group was formed in March by representatives from 12 government departments such as the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Justice, People's Bank of China, State Administration of Taxation and the General Administration of Sport.
Chinese media applauded the move and pitched in commentaries calling for "complete eradication of the dark and evil forces".
"If Gong Jianping's case just touched the tip of the iceberg, this time the Ministry of Public Security aimed at the entire iceberg of the dark and evil forces...hopefully can destroy them," read a Qingdao Daily commentary.
The national newspaper People's Daily called for "a real change in Chinese soccer in the early winter of 2009."
But the real change will not come even if match-fixing and gambling no longer exists unless the system is changed, according to Qilu Evening News.
"Chinese soccer faces an opportunity of revitalization with the crackdown on soccer corruption, but the game can't be truly revitalized unless fundamental changes are made to the system," said the newspapaer based in Shandong Province.
Zhang Lu, vice chairman of newly crowned CSL champions Guoan club, agreed.
"Eliminating match-rigging and gambling is the first step. I think the second step should be establishing a regulation and management system in the near future," said Zhang.
The clubs were often at odds with the CFA over decisions since the CSL company was founded in 2005. The CFA holds over one third of the company's shares with each of the 16 clubs having 4 percent.
In the long run, according to Zhang, to increase the participation in the game will be vital.
"We must start with the kids, get more kids to play soccer. It may take 20 years (to rejuvenate Chinese soccer)," he added.