Crackdown blows whistle on graft after courts deliver verdicts
Efforts to tackle corruption in domestic soccer have already set the goals of guaranteeing legitimate competition and attracting world-class stars onto China's soccer pitches, according to analysts and big-name signings.
Giving corruption a red card means fans and players can enjoy the "Beautiful Game" again, experts said.
"You can see the improved environment ever since the crackdown on soccer corruption was launched," Xie Liang, a veteran commentator with Radio Guangdong, said.
"Tackling corruption has already helped attract international stars to the Chinese Super League this season."
Xie was speaking after eight more soccer officials were put behind bars on Wednesday.
Two former directors of the Chinese Football Administrative Center, Nan Yong and Xie Yalong, received prison terms on Wednesday. Both were also former vice-chairmen of the Chinese Football Association.
Nan was sentenced to 10 and a half years by a court in Tieling, Northeast China's Liaoning province, for taking bribes worth more than 1.48 million yuan ($235,000) between 1999 and 2009. At another court in Dandong, also in Liaoning, Xie Yalong received the same sentence for accepting bribes of 1.36 million yuan.
Qi Hong and Shen Si, key players in China's sole appearance at a World Cup in 2002, were among four former internationals who were also sentenced.
With Guangzhou Evergrande qualifying for the last eight of the AFC Champions League, Xie Liang believes that soccer is already looking up and set for a new era of competitiveness with so many international stars appearing in the league.
"For several years, up to this season, no team from the Chinese league competed in the last eight of the Asian champions league," Xie Liang said.
"This was the time when soccer was hit by gambling and match-fixing. Now the years of investigation and the crackdown have restored the confidence of fans and clubs and some big private companies are again investing in the domestic league."
League champions Guangzhou Evergrande have bought a number of world stars, both on and off the pitch.
World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, Argentine midfielder Dario Conca and the Brazilian trio, Cleo, Muriqui and Paulo have joined the club.
"I studied the leagues in Asia, especially the CSL," said Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios, the Guangzhou club's latest star signing from the Bundesliga's Borussia Dortmund.
"The Chinese league and the entire industry in China have improved hugely in the past two years. That partly explained why I decided to try China," he said.
After serving in the Bundesliga, Germany's top league, for three seasons, the Paraguayan international agreed a four-year transfer deal worth 8.5 million euros ($10.7 million) in May with Guangzhou Evergrande.
"I believed that the league's market value will surge in the years ahead," Barrios said.
French international Nicolas Anelka started last season at Chelsea, the current European champions, but now togs out for Shanghai Shenhua.
Fans are also returning to cheer on their teams.
Figures from the Chinese Football Association said that a total of 4.23 million fans came through the turnstiles to watch matches before the mid-season break, a record since the CSL was launched in 2004.
At the Tianhe Stadium, where Guangzhou Evergrande play, an average of 35,000 fans attended home matches, the club said.
Dario Conca told China Daily that domestic soccer is fast catching up with other leagues.
But some believed that Wednesday's verdicts should not blow the full-time whistle in the fight against match-fixing, gambling and bribery.
Go chess master Nie Weiping was straightforward in pointing out that the crackdown on graft remained unfinished business.
"It was not thorough. Many suspects are off the hook," the enthusiastic fan and keen soccer critic was quoted as saying by Zhengzhou Evening news.
His view was echoed by former Zhejiang sports chief Chen Peide.
"Will Chinese soccer be free of corruption after this campaign? I am not that optimistic," Chen said.
Chen publicly criticized soccer corruption in 2001, leading to the first wave of the crackdown which saw referee, Gong Jianping, sentenced to 10 years in prison. Gong died of cancer in the second year of his sentence.
"It will take a long time to solve the problem because the current system is a hotbed of corruption," he said.
Under the current system, the Chinese Football Association runs the professional leagues and supervises itself, making corruption easier, critics said.
To rebuild the game's reputation, the association decided to assemble an independent council that will work on development paths for the leagues and make decisions, such as setting quotas for foreign players.
But Guangzhou Evergrande boss Xu Jiayin said during the National People's Congress conference in March that a company is needed to operate the leagues at all levels instead of the China Football Industry Development Corp that is actually a marketing department of the Chinese Football Association.
"The company ought to be run by shareholders from the clubs," he said.
Xinhua contributed to this story.