Hard times for China's clubs as game declines
By Liu Zhen
BEIJING, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Another miserable soccer season in China drew to an underwhelming close when Shandong Luneng claimed the Chinese Super League (CSL) title with a goalless home draw at the weekend.
Failure for the national and Olympic teams has combined with continuing violence, protests, crime and allegations of corruption on the domestic front to confound the efforts of officials and clubs to arrest the decline of the game in China.
The negative image of soccer among the Chinese and the consequent declining attendances at games are behind the struggle to attract money into the sport and several clubs face a bleak future.
Shenzhen, champions in 2004, may end up being dissolved as their main investor has announced he wants to offload the club after losing 35 million yuan ($5.12 million) running it for the past three years.
"Even if someone gives me money, I just do not want to be troubled by Chinese football any longer," said Yang Saixin, who bought Shenzhen from the previous owner for a nominal one yuan.
Liaoning, who had for years lingered in the top flight by selling their best players, made no money at all this season and were relegated.
Officials sent a letter to fans blaming the club's demise on the depressed climate of Chinese football and their own poor management.
"In recent years the club has been struggling with unrest and heavy debt," it said. "The stress has exhausted us."
The turmoil on the money markets around the world is having an effect too and Beijing Guoan, one of the richest clubs in the CSL, have lost 5 million yuan ($731,600) in income from Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria because of the falling value of the euro.
The CSL itself has problems and the Chinese Football Association (CFA) has had to take to the courts to try to get the 54 million yuan ($7.90 million) they say British company Iphox owes them for sponsoring the 2006 season.
Wuhan's departure from the league in October is symptomatic of the problems facing soccer which is regarded by many Chinese as violent on the pitch and corrupt off it.
When Wuhan's top player, former national team captain Li Weifeng, was suspended for eight matches for an onfield scuffle with a Beijing player, tens of thousands of fans marched through the central Chinese city to object and the club quit the league in protest.
The heavy punishment meted out to Li had little effect on reducing brawls between players or preventing fans from attacking visitors' buses.
A massive "kung fu fight", as local media described it, broke out between Beijing and Tianjin players in November and resulted in state television CCTV stopping all coverage of the CSL.
"The CSL is a humiliation," one CCTV source was quoted as saying to a Titan Sports reporter. "Football does nothing but damage to the excellent environment the Olympics has brought to China's sports."
The usual whispers of match-fixing swirled around the league and Beijing's Zhang Shuai, a former China international defender, decided to retire in November after coming under suspicion.
China's stated goal of reaching the last four at the Beijing Olympics now looks incredibly optimistic after they failed even to get out of the group stage.
The CFA is mulling a bid to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup finals, which looks to be the only way China will get to play at soccer's showpiece tournament.
A 2-1 defeat at home to Iraq in June saw the dream of a place in South Africa in 2010 disappear in the penultimate round of Asian qualifying.
The CFA, who cancelled the FA Cup and frequently disrupted the CSL season to allow the under-23 side to prepare for August's Olympics, came under furious fire from fans and media with president Xie Yalong attracting particular ire.
"Sack Xie Yalong!" has become a familiar slogan in China's stadiums, newspapers and internet forums over the last couple of years and jokes about him are widespread.
The hapless administrator was sent for "re-education" by the state-run General Administration of Sport after the Olympic failure but finding a replacement is likely to prove difficult.
A former China youth international Wen Junwu was sentenced to death last week for killing a man over gambling debts. Two Xiamen players were stabbed by a taxi driver, a former national striker was attacked in Shenzhen and a Dalian midfielder was near-fatally stabbed on his way to visit his father.
In such an environment, it was no surprise when plans for Beijing Guoan to move next season to the centrepiece of the Olympics, the Bird's Nest Stadium, were shelved.
"We don't want to put any shame on the Bird's Nest," said the club's owner. "Chinese football does not deserve it."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Clare Fallon)