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Saving game from final whistle
Zhi Ming  Updated: 2004-10-20 08:40

The Chinese Football Association (CFA) was for a time in danger of getting a red card. Although things proved to be not so uncontrollable, the association's authority has been seriously hurt in the wake of the latest walk-off incident.

It is its own incompetence, if not deliberate inaction, that is to blame.

On October 2, Beijing Hyundai club pulled out of the premier league match in Shenyang, Northeast China's Liaoning Province, in protest at what it called "black whistle."

The officiating commission then ruled the referee had made no appreciable mistake, enraging the club, which threatened to withdraw from the league and sought alliance with other clubs to boycott the league.

The CFA, as before, at first resorted to using an iron fist in handling such cases, threatening to severely punish the club for abandoning the game.

The football governing body has almost become callous in the face of many such protests in previous years. An iron resolve to iron out differences seems to be the most effective solution.

But this time it underestimated the resolve of the Hyundai club as well as that of some others, which have also claimed to be the victims of biased whistle-blowing in recent years.

A clash was inevitable.

As Hyundai increased pressure on the CFA and determined to pull out of the league, the CFA gave in for fear that it may lose the strategically important Beijing market and the league would be boycotted. Eating its words, it ruled against the referee in the Shenyang match, claiming he had made a serious mistake and would be punished with an eight-match suspension.

Looking back in time, the CFA has experienced both glorious and gloomy days.

The Chinese football league, launched 10 years ago, was the fruit of sports market reform made in the past planned regime. It once served as an example for China's professional reform. In its early stages, the CFA and players saw their pockets fatten while fans got access to better matches. Although clubs could not gain from playing in the league, they cherished hopes that one day they would earn big bucks if the market grew.

In 1998 and 1999, the so-called Division A league reached its peak, with each match attracting about 20,000 to 30,000 fans, a figure that was about equal to that in some European leagues.

The CFA, however, failed to take advantage of this good time to push reforms through and regulate the league. Scandals -match-fixing, gambling and "black whistles" - began to happen on the football field around the mid 1990s.

In one farcical match, one side just gave up defending in protest against unfair officiating and watched its rivals shoot and score almost freely.

The CFA's failure to rein in the irregularities has seen things go from bad to worse. In 2000, the Dalian-based Wanda Group pulled out of the league in protest against the "unfair treatment" it had suffered for so long.

The 2000 incident could have been a watershed in China's football history if the CFA acted decisively and immediately in handling the referee issue.

But it did not.

In 2002, referee Gong Jianping was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in jail for commercial bribery. The CFA could have co-operated with the judicial system to root out more "black whistles," all the time having good knowledge of who received how much in bribes.

But it did not.

We do not know why the football governing body failed to rein in these referees. Maybe it had lost control of them; maybe it just sat idle, turning a blind eye to the worsening situation.

Whatever the reason, its incompetence, or inaction at best, has led to the current chaos.

Fighting between players, a slump in audiences and perpetual distrust in referees have become a Gordian knot in Chinese football. Some matches this year, for example, only saw 1,000 fans through the turnstiles.

Worse, the CFA has kept the financial records of the league a secret, while clubs fail to profit from the league even after 10 years' operation.

This is why co-ordinated pressure has been exerted by many clubs on the CFA in the wake of the Hyundai walk-off incident.

At the clubs' demand, the so-called premier league commission, which is composed of club representatives and CFA managers, convened a meeting on Monday to discuss the reform of Chinese football. Club representatives demanded the CFA disclose financial records and look more into benefiting the clubs, which are the real investors in the league.

CFA President Yan Shiduo expressed his support for the motion and promised to publicize the records. Facing colossal pressure from clubs as well as from the fans, Yan has no other choice but to make the promise.

Whether the CFA will be serious about its promise is to be tested in the future. But given the CFA's record of empty platitudes on reform in the past, people need to remain sober-minded.

A word to the CFA: Take substantial steps to push forward reform - reform of both the league and the organization itself.

(China Daily)

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