The highly publicized government clampdown on illegal football betting has offered a glimmer of hope to the millions of fans, infuriated and saddened by the decline of Chinese football.
While the mainstream media are heaping praises on the authorities for getting right to the heart of the problem that has corrupted the game, many insiders of the sport have expressed doubts in the Internet blogs and chatrooms whether rooting out betting alone can stop the fall of Chinese football further into ignominy. People familiar with Chinese football say that revival of the sport will require a major reform of the system, overseen by the Chinese Football Association, or CFA.
Gambling is, of course, illegal on the mainland. The investigation into the illicit activities of the bookies, game fixers and corrupt club officials and players is a law enforcement operation that should be independent of any other consideration. If the outcome of the investigation can help improve the standard of the game, it's all the more better.
The millions of hopeful fans should recognize that gambling and football can co-exist as they do in the UK and many other European countries, where football betting is a well-organized business that contributes handsomely to their respective national coffers. What can threaten to destroy football as a sport are the illicit game fixings by unscrupulous bookies, as revealed in a recent case in Italy.
Rampant game fixing has led to the arrest of several alleged ringleaders, including club officials, team managers and players. Although none of them is known to have been officially charged in a court of law, the local media have carried extensive stories detailing their activities and identifying specific games that are said to be flagrant examples of fixing.
This makes us wonder what the CFA has been doing in the past several years other than hiring and firing foreign managers in rapid sequence for the national teams. If corruption in Chinese football is as rampant as the local media have suggested, the CFA really has no excuse for not taking action earlier.
CFA's apparent inertia has been attributed by many commentators and self-professed insiders to its bureaucratic structure which puts political correctness over professional judgment. The most common complaint is that the officials in charge of the CFA know little about the game. People who made that charge often cited the example that the former head of the CFA hailed from the track rather than from the football field.
What seems obvious is that officials of the CFA, which directly controls the national teams, have placed too great an emphasis on winning, which is obviously the main criterion in evaluating their performance, rather than on sportsmanship. On more than one occasion, games with foreign national teams were arranged at times and locations that were supposed to be advantageous to the host team. Chinese referees, who are under the supervision of the CFA, are often criticized for taking side with the Chinese national team in what has now become commonly known as "patriotic whistling".
Under pressure to win, many players have brought ignominy to the Chinese national team by playing in the most un-sportsmanly manner in various international matches. Surprisingly, even the worst offenders received from the CFA nothing more than a symbolic slap on the wrist.
The government move to clamp down on betting should be seen not as the magic pill that can cure all the Chinese football ills, but rather as a clarion call for the CFA to shape up and face reality.
In a match against the Brazilian national team that I watched some years ago, a player on the Chinese national team made an aimless forward pass, to which the commentator, too eager to please, exclaimed: "Good pass. Too bad his team mates weren't there to receive the ball."
Oh please, let's stop fooling ourselves.