The beautiful game in China has an ugly reputation.
For years, the country has had an emotional love-hate relationship with soccer, thrilled and enraptured by the best teams around the world, while shamed and humiliated by the failures and poor behavior of its own teams, players and coaches.
Indeed, the idea that China could ever compete on the international level against the world's best has become something of a joke for soccer fans there. The problem has become all the more pronounced as Chinese athletes surged ahead in other sports, claiming gold medals and international renown, even in fields not traditionally associated with the East (golf, basketball, ice skating as examples).
So what is keeping Chinese soccer stars from performing better? Why does soccer struggle in the country that most likely provides its largest fan base?
In past years, the debate has centered on a whole range of issues.
Some analysts said it was because China's state system for promoting young athletes favored individual champions rather than team exceptionalism -- a microcosm of its general economic system. Others complained that it was because Chinese families were wary of pushing their children into the sport. Chinese managers and coaches were criticized for lacking the experience necessary to nurture a great team. Yet others said it was because the country lacked community-based soccer clubs, which would create a grassroots environment for promoting young players.
All of that may be true, but court judgments on Wednesday have given weight to another argument entirely: the oppressive and insidious effects of corruption on soccer in China.
On June 13, 11 high-ranking players, referees and officials of the Chinese Football Association, or CFA, the country's highest body for administering the sport, were sentenced to jail and had their financial assets confiscated.
Two former vice chairmen of the CFA and past directors of the Chinese Football Management Center, or CFMC, Nan Yong and Xie Yalong, were each sentenced on Wednesday to 10-and-a-half years in jail for bribery and embezzlement. Vice chairmen in the CFA essentially serve in the top role for administering, overseeing and developing soccer in China, since the chairmanship has largely become a symbolic position.
Former national team captain Yu Shaohui also received more than a decade in jail for accepting bribes; Li Dongsheng, the CFA's past technical chief, got nine years.
This development is an attempt by authorities to root out match fixing in the Chinese soccer leagues. But as with most cases involving corruption in China, those selectively punished are often only symbolic of a pervasive system.
Nan and Xie had illegally taken more than $230,000 and $210,000, respectively, since the late 1990s.
In exclusive interviews with Chinese Central Television's investigative journalism program Focus Report in mid-December, five leading officials including Nan and Xie revealed to reporters that they had taken bribes to fix matches. Huang Junjie, a well-known referee speaking to reporters from prison, tearfully said apologies to the fans, apologies to my parents; the only ones I don't need to apologize to are the officials in the [Chinese] Football Association.
Yet Xie's lawyers in late April backtracked and said that a confession he made to police had been delivered under duress due to torture. Police officials who had investigated his activities told Xinhua that the claims were groundless.
In February, Zhang Jianqiang, the ex-director of the CFA's referee committee, was sent to 12 years in jail for accepting bribes worth more than $430,000 on two-dozen separate occasions.
While the CFA has tried to reform itself into a nongovernmental organization in recent years, Western critics say that the closed hierarchy at the top, where the CFA and CFMC are led by the same individual, incentivizes abuse.
Since 2009, 56 soccer players, referees and officials have been convicted and jailed for corruption.
The perception of corruption within China's top-tier Super League and junior leagues -- the former includes teams funded by Chinese investment giant CITIC Group and major real estate developer Evergrande (Hong Kong: 3333) -- have resulted in widespread condemnation from the public over past years.
In the meantime, teams have attempted to improve their own image by courting international superstars to join Chinese soccer clubs. In the beginning of 2012, Nicolas Anelka from England's Premier League Chelsea Football Club moved to Shanghai Shenhua, a Super League team majority owned by Zhu Jun, the chairman of The9 Limited (online operator and distributor of World of Warcraft in China) (NASDAQ: NCTY). Marcelo Lippi, who managed the Italian national team from 2004 to 2010, became the head coach for Evergrande's Guangzhou team in mid-May. José Antonio Camacho, who managed Spain's national team in 1998-2002, is now manager of China's national team.
Whether the infusion of foreign talent will ultimately be effective in helping to reform Chinese soccer leagues is still largely unknown.
The CFA's new chief, Wei Di, warned reporters on April 26 that he was concerned the spirit of the recent fight against corruption would dissipate.
Lessons have been learned from the scandals, but similar cases might happen again in the future. So we must stay vigilant all along, said Wei. We are also considering joining hands with FIFA and Interpol in the fight against corruption to ensure a clean environment for the game.
In China's war on soccer corruption, it appears that the price for victory is eternal vigilance.