The head of the heavily criticized Chinese Football Association (CFA) and two other top officials have been taken in for questioning amid a deepening probe into fraud and gambling in professional soccer games, police confirmed Thursday.
The three officials are the most senior figures under investigation in the nationwide crackdown on match fixing and gambling that was launched four months ago. Insiders, meanwhile, have disclosed that so many people and clubs are involved in the large-scale corruption that the soccer circle might be paralyzed if they are all pulled down.
Nan Yong, who took charge of the CFA one year ago, Yang Yimin, CFA vice president, and Zhang Jianqiang, who was formerly in charge of referee management, were detained by police in order to "clarify some facts in several cases of football gambling and the illegal manipulating of domestic football league games by using business bribery," the Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday, citing Ministry of Public Security officials.
The ministry didn't say if the three officials are involved in the cases or just cooperating with the investigation. Reporters were not allowed to enter the office building of the CFA Thursday, and the mobile phone of its spokesperson rang unanswered.
Titan Sports, a Chinese newspaper, reported Wednesday that Nan and Yang didn't show up at the CFA this week after holding a meeting there one week ago. The other two vice presidents are doing their jobs.
Nan Yong told China Central Television last month, after the arrest of Xu Hongtao, a club man-ager in Chengdu and an official in the CFA, that the crackdown on soccer gambling and fraud has only just begun.
"The CFA will voluntarily cooperate with police and provide the necessary materials," Nan said. "There is no hope for Chinese soccer if this cancer is not cut out."
Match fixing and corruption have plagued Chinese soccer for many years, leading to dwindling attendance and frustration among fans and sponsors. Chants of "black whistle" or "fake match" can frequently be heard from the terraces when players obviously concede points to an opposing team or a referee makes a dubious call.
Ren Jie, the first Chinese citizen to set up an anti-soccer-gambling association, said that he didn't have too much hope in the campaign in the beginning, but he said the latest move shows a strong determination by the government.
"The CFA officials' involvement in the corruption, if any, is only part of the whole picture, and they may not be key figures," he said, adding that the protective umbrella in match fixing could involve organized gangs and officials from different administrative departments.
At least 21 officials, players and club managers have been arrested or detained in the crackdown since March, when a high-profile committee was set up by 12 ministry-level organs to clean Chinese soccer of corruption.
Ren said the three officials under investigation would probably give information to back up the re-investigation of previous cases, and he had provided some evidence to the police to show match fixing among some clubs.
In other developments, Jia Xiuquan, a former head coach of Chinese Super League (CSL) club Shanghai Shenhua, was also held for questioning by police, and a local court has sentenced former Liaoning player Lu Dong to three years in jail for gambling, the Beijing News reported Thursday.
A senior sports reporter with the Changchun-based New Culture Daily, who asked not to be named, told the Global Times that match fixing is rampant among football clubs in the CSL.
"They are all money driven. Ranking is decisive for a team in winning commercial contracts from sponsors and securing a considerable amount of bonuses from the club and the football association," the reporter said.
In the meantime, some participants have been subject to organized gangs and forced to participate in illegal behavior, he added.
Wang Po, a former general manager of soccer teams in Shaanxi, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning and other provinces, was detained in December on allegations of deliberately throwing games in exchange for money from rival teams that needed points in order to rise to higher professional leagues.
Li Chengpeng, a football journalist and author of the book Inside China Soccer, wrote on his blog that he and his colleagues will closely follow the progress of the crackdown, and a real battle is about to unfold now that senior officials of the CFA are implicated.
"Bribery in soccer circles is organized, even if the president of the CFA can't compete with the interest groups behind clubs," the Southern Weekend quoted Li Thursday as saying.
Ma Dexing, a senior reporter from Titan Sports, told the Global Times that the move reflects the unprecedented determination by the government to tackle gambling and corruption on the soccer field, no matter whether the three officials are involved in the scam or not.
"The latest action doesn't look like merely a show, as it did several years ago when only little shrimps were caught," Ma said.
In 2003, a Beijing court sentenced former international football referee Gong Jianping to 10 years in prison after convicting him of accepting at least 370,000 yuan ($54,000) in bribes. Sev-eral other referees and at least one former CFA official were implicated in the scandal.
The then high-profile case, however, was criticized by many sports insiders, who said Gong was a "scapegoat" for the powerful forces behind the scenes.
Qiu Wei and Yin Hang contributed to this story