New China chief targets clean-up in three years

BEIJING - 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 matchfixing scandals over the last five months that have left it reeling.

Wei, who took over at the Chinese Football Association (CFA) in January when the previous chief Nan Yong was arrested, 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. After two to three years I hope we can erase all the negative impressions," Wei told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

"But improving playing standards in Chinese football isn't just a two or three-year job."

China are ranked 84th in the world and failed to reach the final qualifying stages for this year's World Cup in South Africa after finishing bottom of their third round group.

Their highest FIFA ranking of 37th was achieved in December 1998 and they reached their only World Cup finals in 2002.

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, calmly plotting how to turn three gold medals at the Beijing Olympics into five in London, when Nan and 20 other football officials were caught up in the anti-corruption crackdown.

"Obviously, I felt huge pressure," he said. "There were so many urgent problems to solve, the image of football had been so badly damaged, the standard of football had declined so much.

"How would I rebuild a bright image of football? How could we make children love football again? It was such a difficult mission."

Anybody hoping the matchfixing scandal might result in the sport being freed from the embrace of China's government-run sports system, however, is likely to be disappointed.

"China can mobilise the whole society and concentrate all its power and resources on one thing to have the biggest effect, that is the original idea of the state system," he said.

"Why can't we make full use of our own advantage? China could never catch up with developed countries if we just waited for natural development."

GOVERNMENT INVOLVEMENT

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 towards but, at the moment, the involvement of government is a guarantee of the orderliness and a protection from fundamental problems," he said.

"If we entirely copy the system of the countries with centuries of market economy, China will be completely chaotic. There will be even more matchfixing and gambling," he added.

He 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 (CSL).

Wei travels to Zurich on Thursday for his first meeting with FIFA President Sepp Blatter who, he said, was "very concerned" about the state of the game in China.

He also hopes to meet FIFA officials to elicit help for the "Campus Football" scheme, an initiative backed by $6 million of government cash that aims to expose a million children a year to the joys of football.

"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."

Wei said the fruits currently on China's tree make qualifying for the 2014 World Cup "difficult" but he is convinced his country will become a power in the game.

"If I fail, I will take responsibility," he said. "But Chinese football will succeed one day."

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