Friday, April 9, 2010

Turnaround for Chinese football

The negative perceptions of Chinese football will begin to change in a year and the whole game will be put on the right path in three, said Wei Di, the man charged with dragging the sport out of its present morass.

Football in China has suffered years of misery and violence on the pitch and corruption off it, culminating in a series of match-fixing scandals over the last five months that have left it reeling.

Wei, who took over at the Chinese Football Association in January when the previous chief Nan Yong was arrested, says he is confident he can quickly restore the credibility of the game, if not immediately improve the quality of play.

“I believe after about one year we can make a new impression, an initial turnaround,” Wei said on Wednesday. “After two to three years I hope we can erase all the negative impressions. But improving playing standards in Chinese football isn’t just a two or three-year job.”

China is ranked 84th in the world and failed to reach the final qualifying stages for this year’s World Cup in South Africa.

Wei’s three-point plan involves tightening up supervision of the professional leagues, improving the image of the CFA and, most importantly, broadening the game’s grassroots.

The 55-year-old was China’s head of water sports when Nan and 20 other football officials were caught up in the anticorruption crackdown.

“Obviously, I felt huge pressure,” he said. “How would I rebuild a bright image of football? How could we make children love football again? It was such a difficult mission.”

Chinese football fans hoping that the match-fixing scandal might have resulted in the sport being freed from the embrace of China’s government-run sports system, however, are most likely to be disappointed.

Unlike many critics, Wei believes the involvement of government in football is not the problem but the solution to the game’s current ills.

“To separate government and football is the direction we are working toward but, at the moment, the involvement of government is a guarantee of the orderliness and a protection from fundamental problems,” he said.

Wei does, however, promise open and democratic decisions at the CFA, forums for the public to express their opinions and increased, if not complete, independence for the top flight Chinese Super League.

Wei travels to Zurich on Thursday for his first meeting with FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

He also hopes to meet with FIFA officials to elicit further help for China’s “Campus Football” scheme, an initiative backed by $6 million in government funds aimed at exposing a million children a year to the joys of the sport.

“The professional league is the stem of the tree while the national teams are the fruits on it. But beautiful fruits can attract more attention and encourage children to participate.”

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