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Time for a Reboot

The downfall of Li Tie, former star player and coach of China’s national men’s soccer team, under suspicions of wrongdoing has started a domino effect, with multiple senior figures under investigation, as fans hope it will lead to sweeping reform

By Yu Xiaodong , Zhou Qunfeng Updated Apr.1

Li Tie ahead of the final round of the FIFA World Cup Asian Qualifier, Sharjah Stadium, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, October 7, 2021 (Photo by VCG)

On February 14, authorities in Central China’s Hubei Province announced that Chen Xuyuan, chairman of the Chinese Football Association (CFA) is under investigation for “serious violations of discipline and the law.” Previously on January 19, 2023, two other senior CFA officials, executive deputy secretary-general Chen Yongliang and Liu Yi, the CFA’s secretary-general, were already under investigation for similar reasons.  

The announcement suggests that the latest anti-corruption storm in Chinese soccer has finally reached to the very top figure of the sport’s administrative system, which many believe is the real reason for the problems that have long tainted Chinese soccer, which include match-fixing, corruption and the heartbreak of Chinese fans, as they once again had to sit through a men’s World Cup finals with no representation.  

On November 26, 2022, Li Tie, former midfield star and Chinese men's national soccer team head coach was the first to fall. Since then, more than a dozen coaches, players, club managers and officials are reported to have been taken into custody. As Li’s investigation snowballs into an anti-graft avalanche, Chinese fans finally have some clues as to why the Chinese men’s soccer team has performed so poorly for so long. 

Fall of A Star 
At 45, Li had been at the forefront of Chinese soccer for the past two decades. Spending five years in Brazil as a teenager, part of an effort to send young players to hone their technique, Li became a star midfielder on China’s national team. He took part in the 2002 FIFA World Cup held in South Korea and Japan, the last and only time China appeared in a World Cup Finals, although they did not trouble the score sheet.  

With his impressive performance, Li caught the attention of the British Premier League and joined Everton in late 2002. After playing for Everton and Sheffield United for many years, Li returned to China to play in the Chinese Super League (CSL) in 2008, before retiring in 2011.  

In 2012, Li Tie joined Guangzhou Evergrande as an assistant coach to legendary former Juventus manager Marcello Lippi. He later served as head coach of the CSL teams Hebei China Fortune FC and Wuhan Zall FC. Li also served as an assistant coach of China’s national team and worked closely with Italian Lippi, who was later hired as head coach of China’s national team in 2019.  

Given his successful career as a player and coaching experiences working with world-class coaches like Lippi, Some considered Li a beacon of hope for the future of Chinese soccer.  

That hope was quickly dashed. After Team China’s disappointing defeat to Syria in November 2019 in the early stages of China’s Qatar World Cup Qualifying campaign, Lippi resigned, and Li took the reins of the national team in January 2020.  

Li enjoyed initial success as the team secured a place in the last phase of the Asian zone, qualifying for Qatar in June 2021. But managing just one win in the final playoffs against Vietnam in October 2021, Team China failed to qualify. Fans criticized Li Tie for his sparing use of the squad’s naturalized stars, foreign-born players who are entitled to Chinese nationality through ancestry or residency. Instead, Li drafted two domestic players from Wuhan Zall FC, where he had been general manager.  

In response to criticism on social media, Li caused more controversy when he erased the logo of the national team’s sponsor from pictures he posted on Weibo in November 2021, while apparently plugging several other products from rival brands in the same post. Li was eventually forced to resign. 

Double Dealings
It turned out that while he served as head coach of the national team with an annual salary of 8 million yuan (US$1.16m), Li Tie maintained his position as general manager of Wuhan Zall FC, which changed its name to Wuhan Yangtze River Football Club in early 2022, with a reported annual salary of 30 million yuan (US$4.34m), plus a signing bonus of another 30 million yuan to be paid in five years.  

“It’s really unusual for someone to hold dual positions as head coaches of a national team and a club at the same time,” said Li Pingkang, an Australia-based media professional focusing on Chinese soccer.  

According to multiple reports from domestic media, after stepping down as national team coach, Li insisted that Wuhan FC fully honor their five-year contract worth 180 million yuan (US$26.1m). Wuhan FC, however, understood the contract terms differently, rejected Li’s request and fired six players Li brought to the team.  

It was alleged that Li sought the support of the CFA and its chairman Chen Xuyuan, who backed Li’s claim in the dispute. It proved too much for Wuhan FC, which reported Li to discipline authorities, though the team publicly denied that it was behind Li’s investigation. 
But according to legal experts, holding dual coaching positions does not violate any law, and Li’s downfall is more likely related to his deep involvement in the sports agency business, which created a serious conflict of interest with his coaching positions.  

According to a report by the Shanghai Observer in November 2021, Li is closely affiliated with Kemande Sports, a sports agency which represents Liu Yun and Ming Tian, two players from Wuhan FC whom Li enlisted in the national team.  

Soccer journalist He Xiaolong alleged in a social media post that after taking over the position as head coach of the national team in 2021, Li kicked a promising young player off the team for refusing to sign contracts with a sports agent associated with Li.  

Citing unnamed inside sources, He Xiaolong said that during his tenure as both Wuhan FC’s head coach and general manager, Li was granted expansive powers to choose players and how much to pay them. In one instance, Li increased a young player’s salary from 2 million yuan (US$289,850) to 6 million yuan (US$884,883), with the player’s agents, closely associated with Li, taking a 3 million yuan (US$434,780) cut.  

So far, none of the allegations can be independently verified. Liu Jialiang, a law professor at Shandong University, told NewsChina that if these dealings are true, authorities could charge Li with embezzlement, which carries a maximum life sentence, though the discipline authorities have revealed no details about the investigation into Li. 

‘Rotten to the Core’ 
Causing a shockwave in China’s soccer community, Li’s downfall led to growing calls for the authorities to investigate the sport’s administrative system and launch comprehensive reforms similar to the last anti-graft probe into professional soccer in 2009.  

In the 2009 probe, which ended in 2011, over 60 soccer professionals, including senior officials of the CFA, national team players and high-profile referees, were convicted or disciplined, and 12 professional soccer clubs were punished.  

It appears that corruption in Chinese professional soccer not only was never rooted out, but has gone far beyond a few rotten apples like Li Tie.  

With Li’s investigation underway, the provincial commission for discipline inspection of South China’s Guangdong Province announced on December 24, 2022 that it has confirmed a match-fixing allegation involving a youth championship final between two teams from Guangzhou and Qingyuan, also in Guangdong, on August 7.  

The youth team from Qingyuan had dominated its rival and led 3-1 midway through the second half. But after a couple of substitutions were made, its players appeared to suddenly stop trying to compete, allowing the Guangzhou team to score four times in 13 minutes to secure a 5-3 victory and win the provincial youth championship.  

The livestreamed match triggered widespread anger and prompted discipline authorities to step in. As a result, 16 sports officials in Guangdong Province were punished. Among them are Wang Yuping, director of the provincial sports bureau, Lei Jianjun, deputy director of the bureau, and Ouyang Ziwen, head of the sports bureau of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, who were dismissed for dereliction of duty. Other lower rank officials have been demoted or received official warnings.  

But few believe that discipline measures like this will make any major difference, and many commentators lamented that match manipulation in youth leagues shows how Chinese soccer is “rotten to the core.” 

End of the ‘Money Talks’ Era 
According to Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of the Research Center for Government Integrity-Building at Peking University, the widespread corruption in Chinese professional soccer results from the enormous investment poured into the sport, combined with institutional flaws in the administrative system.  

Following the last round of massive anti-graft probes in early 2011, pro soccer in China entered what many called the “money talks” era, as major real estate developers, spearheaded by China Evergrande Group, one of the country’s biggest developers, started to sponsor and develop teams.  

Aiming not to make profits but to promote their brand recognition and reputation among soccer fans, the real-estate giants that emerged from China’s booming property market could afford this lavish spending.  

Between 2011 and 2019, Guangzhou Evergrande won eight Chinese Super League titles and two Asian Champions League titles. Other real estate developers soon followed suit. Both Hebei China Fortune and Wuhan Zall, for which Li Tie served as head coach, are financed by real estate developers, China Fortune Land Development and Wuhan Zall City Investment and Development Company.  

Initially, real estate developers were welcomed. Many believed that more investment would not only help attract world-class players to the CSL, which would elevate the overall competitiveness of China’s professional soccer, but it would also provide much-needed funds to nurture gifted youth players.  

Now the consensus is that the strategy backfired spectacularly. While the hot money brought by real estate developers allowed Chinese football clubs to recruit first-tier players from all over the world, it also led to an inflation of earnings and transfer fees of domestic players given the limits on foreign players each club can hire. Although the rules often changed, clubs were limited to playing three, four or five foreign players in each game.  

For example, when Zhang Chengdeng, a member of China’s national team, was transferred from Beijing Guoan to Hebei China Fortune in 2017, the transfer fee was 150 million yuan (US$22.2m). In sharp contrast, Zhang’s transfer value in the European market was only about 475,000 euros (US$506,629).  

According to an estimate made by the CFA in December 2020, the average salary of first-tier players in the Chinese Super League was 5.8 times of their Japanese counterparts and 11.7 times of their South Korean ones.  

While Japan and South Korea strive to send their players to Europe’s elite competitions, widely recognized as the most effective way to elevate the competitiveness of a country’s national team, the inflation of salaries in China had the opposite effect as several Chinese who were playing overseas opted to return to China as they could earn much more back at home.  

With the downfall of Li and others, it has become clear how this hot money turned the sport into a breeding ground for corruption. “If the authorities conduct a full-scale investigation into Li’s case, it could cause an earthquake as many more would be implicated,” Li Pingkang said. 
The “money-talks” era also ended with the recent collapse of China’s property market. Many real estate developers, including Evergrande, found themselves in serious debt crises while their soccer clubs struggled to survive.  

On November 1, 2021, Hebei FC, owned by the now debt-ridden property developer China Fortune Land Development, ceased operations. As the 2022 season of the CSL wrapped up on December 27, 2022, Guangzhou FC, formerly Guangzhou Evergrande FC, was relegated.  

On January 25, 2023, Wuhan FC declared it was disbanding, quitting the league and was settling salary payments with all its coaches and players except “a certain coach and players he brought to the team, foreign players and players who broke the team’s rules.”  

As the investigations have finally reached the governing body of Chinese soccer, many Chinese fans are holding onto hopes that the anti-corruption investigations will help reboot Chinese soccer and save China’s decades-long soccer dream.

Chinese soccer fans watch the Qatar World Cup at a viewing event held at Shanghai Pudong Football Stadium, November 27, 2022 (Photo by VCG)