By Sportswriter Wang Jimin
TIELING, Liaoning Province, April 26 (Xinhua) -- China will look to a rebirth of soccer game after a series of trials against corruptions as this spring has arrived in the country which arguably invented the ancient form of soccer.
Even experts could not give a convincing answer to why the world's most populous country has long failed to make a splash in sport of soccer, but the midweek trials in northeast China might deliver a rough picture on the question.
Nan Yong and Xie Yalong, two former heads of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), stood trial for bribery Wednesday and Tuesday respectively in Tieling and Dandong, northeastern province of Liaoning.
Xie is accused of taking 1.7 million yuan (about 273,000 U.S. dollars) in bribes from sports equipment manufacturers, professional clubs, and a former national team coach. Nan is accused of taking 1.5 million yuan (236,000 U.S. dollars) in bribes.
Others on trial this week included former national team manager Wei Shaohui, former referees' chief Li Dongsheng, and four former Chinese international players.
"I've been quite familiar with those officials and referees, so it's really shocking news, not just to those in sports circle but with everyone, especially when the soccer chiefs were put to trial," former Chinese soccer legend Rong Zhihang said on Thursday.
China is acknowledged as the birthplace of soccer, inventing the game of "cuju" some 2,300 years ago, which involved kicking a ball using feet to score points. The "cuju"-origin has been endorsed by many foreign historians and even FIFA chief Sepp Blatter.
Unfortunately, a good start does not guarantee a happy ending. Soccer in China has now been in crisis, marred in corruption scandals off the pitch and dogged by woeful performances on it.
"The soccer association firmly supports the government's anti-corruption drive and must learn lessons from these scandals," Wei Di, China's current soccer boss, told reporters on Wednesday.
"On back of the anti-corruption fight, we will launch thorough investigations into those clubs, coaches and players who offered bribes and give them hell," he added.
Wei took charge of the CFA in 2010 after dozens of CFA and club officials, referees and players were arrested on charges of match-fixing, gambling and bribe-taking.
Most damaging of all was the arrest of Lu Jun, a former international World Cup referee known as the "Golden Whistle" for his impartiality.
In trials early this year, the CFA's ex-deputy chief Yang Yimin was convicted of accepting bribes worth 1.25 million yuan (200,000 U.S. dollars) from about 20 clubs to fix fitness test results and sentenced to 10 and a half years in prison.
Former head of referees Zhang Jianqiang received a 12-year jail term for taking bribes worth a total of 2.73 million yuan (433,000 U.S. dollars) while the "Golden Whistle" Lu was imprisoned for 5 and a half years.
The anti-graft campaign demonstrated the government's unequivocal and consistent opposition to corruption, and also brought hopes for the revival of the sport in the soccer-crazy country.
"Fair play is the most important thing in sport. Those filthy practices did harm to the environment and also hurt our coaches and players, especially the teenage players. We must fight against corruption to ensure a clean environment and put the game back onto the right track," said Rong, a skilful and sporting midfielder from the 1970s.
"China has become a sporting superpower over the last decade, winning Olympic and Asian Games gold medals in about every sport, but it has struggled to succeed in the world's most popular game -- soccer. It's really abnormal, the country needs to take the problem extremely seriously," the 63-year-old added.
It also feels weird to many that China has tens of millions of soccer fans who stay up all night and tune in to Europe's Champions League matches but is losing its grassroots players and playing ground dramatically.
According to the CFA, the soccer population has reduced from 500,000 in 2000 to just 50,000, which is a clear reason for all the bad fortunes happening to the national teams.
"The stress should be put on the soccer education among the kids, they are our hope. If we keep on doing this for quite a long time, China will be a soccer powerhouse in 10 years or 20 years' time," said Rong.
But for soccer boss Wei, the anti-graft fight is of much priority and should be seen as a long-term and arduous one. Despite increasing crackdown efforts, Wei has warned against backsliding of corruption in the once graft-addled Chinese Super League(CSL).
"The spectre of corruption will never be far from Chinese soccer, so we must stay vigilant all along and resort to forceful measures to improve the institutions for punishing and preventing corruption."
According to Wei, the CFA and police have established a joint anti-corruption mechanism which allows both to share information.
"We are also considering joining hands with the FIFA and Interpol in the fight against corruption to ensure a fair league for the game," said Wei.
For years, some of the crooked match calls were so obvious that fans began to riot or the victimized teams walked off the pitch. China Central Television (CCTV) for parts of several seasons refused to broadcast CSL matches due to the scandal.
But since last year fans' thought seemed to have changed as the campaign against graft got underway. New anti-graft measures, stronger finances, and the import of expensive foreign talent this season further improved the CSL's image.
The CFA said that in 2011 a total of 4.23 million fans poured into the stadia to watch CSL matches on the spot, a new record since the CSL was launched in the year of 2004. CCTV also resumed broadcasting league matches this season.
The anti-graft campaign has recently been one of the most talked-about subject on China's hugely popular weibos -- microblogs similar to Twitter.
Many web users lamented the worrying levels of corruption in Chinese soccer, while others said the campaign showed the Chinese government is finally getting serious about sorting out the chaos of its domestic soccer.
"The crackdown is wider and deeper than many had predicted. Has it ended everything? No. But it's a great start. Whether the Chinese national squad makes it to the finals of a World Cup for the second time depends on our ability to keep soccer clean consistently," posted one under the name Zhuzhulan.？