BEIJING - The founder of an all-mighty Chinese soccer club who quitted the game in disgust in 2000, announced their return on Sunday with a half-billion-yuan ($77 million) program to save China's struggling soccer.
The real estate giant Dalian Wanda, which pulled out of Chinese soccer in protest against a corrupted game 11 years ago, came to the rescue of the embattled sport that has witnessed two former soccer chiefs behind the bars and the top league without title sponsor.
Wanda's three-year deal with the Chinese Football Association (CFA), signed in the Beijing Institute of Technology on Sunday afternoon, covers the company's sponsorship of the Chinese Super League (CSL), Chinese youth league, and referee training and assessment.
It also includes an overseas program for teenage players, or "Future Star Program", and the hiring of a world-class foreign coach for the Chinese national team.
Wanda, whose team had set a 55-game unbeaten record and won the Chinese top league four times between 1994 and 1998, decided to withdraw from the Chinese league after controversially losing the 1998 CFA Cup semifinal to Liaoning. Two years later, Wanda sold its shares to Dalian Shide.
Wanda president Wang Jianlin, who had vowed never to have anything to do with Chinese soccer, said that his passion for Chinese soccer had never died out.
"My love for soccer is still burning," he said.
Wang noted that the Chinese people love the "Beautiful Game" and they are eagerly expecting better performance by Chinese players.
"I want to do something to help the Chinese people realize their dreams," he said.
Wang said a top Chinese official had met him in person, encouraging him to return to Chinese soccer.
Cai Zhenhua, a vice sports minister who oversees Chinese soccer, said at the signing ceremony that the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the State Council "pay great attention to Chinese soccer" and it is a sacred responsibility to raise the level of the game in China.
Wanda, whose assets are estimated at 140 billion yuan ($21.7 billion) through its ventures in commercial properties, luxury hotels, chain stores and tourism, became the title sponsor of the league in the name of "Dalian Wanda Plaza CSL" from this season to 2013.
China's troubled Super League kicked off on April 1 without a title sponsor or a national TV deal, and with senior officials still facing trial over a corruption scandal.
Former Chinese soccer chief Nan Yong was arrested in January 2010 along with other association officials after a cabinet-level investigation into bribery, match-fixing and illegal gambling in the sport.
Also arrested and facing trial is Nan's predecessor Xie Yalong, and scores of other leading club and association officials and referees.
The outspoken Wang had played an important role in Chinese soccer from 1994 to 1998, when he helped build Dalian Wanda into a powerhouse in the Jia-A League, China's top-tier league which evolved into the Chinese Super League in 2004.
Wanda will also sponsor the Chinese national youth soccer league including groups of U19, U17, U15, U13 all in the name of "Dalian Wanda Plaza".
The agreement also involves the "Future Star Program" that will send 20 young players every year to Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.
Wanda will invite FIFA trainers and launch workshops to train and evaluate Chinese referees.
According to the agreement, the CFA will raise a referee's payment from 2,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan per game.
Wanda has promised to sponsor a world-class coach for the Chinese national team with no less than 40 million yuan per year.
It was reported that CFA had contacted with Italian Marcello Lippi, Dutchmen Frank Rijkaard and Leo Beenhakker and German Jurgen Klinsmann.
The new coach will reportedly take over the national team before the third round of World Cup qualification in September. But the CFA refused to verify the reports.