China sports minister saddened by scandal

BEIJING - China's sports minister Liu Peng has been left "sad and deeply shocked" by the matchfixing scandal that has engulfed professional football in the country.

Liu, a senior Communist Party official who oversaw China's rise to the top of the medals table at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, said his ministry was "inescapably responsible" for the poor situation of Chinese football.

"We are very sad and deeply shocked by the serious problems exposed recently in football. It is a heavy lesson to learn," he told local sports bureau chiefs in comments reported by the official state news agency Xinhua.

"The roots of the problem go back a long way. It is a warning to us that we have long way to go to rule out corruption within the sports officials."

Nan Yong, the former head of Chinese Football Association (CFA), was taken away for questioning by police with two other senior officials last week. They were later removed from their posts.

More than 20 officials, players and club managers have been arrested or detained in the past two months on suspicion of matchfixing or gambling, which remains illegal in China.

Local media reported on Monday that all senior and middle level CFA officials have been ordered not to leave Beijing until the investigation is completed.

Liu said the sports authorities would firmly support and cooperate with the police campaign to crack down on the manipulation of match results and gambling without mercy.

"Football is a sport of huge social influence. It has the concern of state leaders and the attention of people," he added.

"Our people are very unhappy about it... It is the bottleneck restricting the development of sports and the construction of a strong sports nation."

Chinese soccer has long been regarded as a national disgrace, a mire of corruption, violence, poor play and dwindling crowds.

President Hu Jintao made his concern over the game known last October after a flood of similar remarks from other officials, an indication that the government was finally getting serious about cracking down on the problems.