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Tip of the iceberg of soccer corruption

By LI YANG | China Daily | Updated: 2022-11-29 07:45


As well as the ongoing 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the investigation of Li Tie, former coach of the Chinese men's national soccer team, for suspected corruption has caught the attention of China's soccer fans.

Li, a talented midfielder arising from the rust belt city of Shenyang, Liaoning province, used to be the poster boy for Chinese football.

He was a member of the national team that has been the most successful up until now, making the country's World Cup debut in the Republic of Korea in 2002 with former Yugoslavian legend Bora Milutinovic as its coach.

Although China's long-awaited debut ended at the group stage after three defeats in a row to Costa Rica, Turkey and Brazil, scoring no goals — the latter two ended the tournament as the third-placed team and the champion respectively. That generation of Chinese players, with Li as a representative, are still regarded as China's best till now.

A midfield engine of that team, Li joined the English Premiership team Everton in 2002, staying with the club for six seasons before his transfer to Sheffield United in 2006, with whom he stayed two seasons before returning home to play for the club of his hometown province until his retirement as a player in 2010.

His rich experience and connections secured him the post as head coach of the Chinese national team after the "Silver Fox" Italian Marcello Lippi angrily resigned following the Chinese team's loss to war-torn Syria in a qualifying match for the Qatar World Cup in November 2019.

What has been revealed through various channels from those close to the probe shows that it was a club owner in Wuhan, Hubei province, that has reported Li's suspected graft crimes. Li's contract with the club was still effective when he accepted the job with the national team. This dual identity was very lucrative for Li as he still earned an annual salary of 30 million yuan ($4.2 million) from the club even though his focus was not on it.

His career life as both a player and a coach have spanned the money-talks era of Chinese soccer over the past two decades, which ended with the national team squad including at least six naturalized players at the same time, none of whom were still playing for the country after their de facto employer, a real-estate tycoon, who was widely seen as a reckless speculator in Chinese soccer as a stepping stone for the success of his once multi-trillion-yuan business empire, became mired in a debt crisis last year.

The investigation is expected to put the spotlight on the problems in the Chinese soccer system and produce a shock wave of reform, as occurred following the last anti-corruption probe of professional soccer in 2010, which resulted in the imprisonment of dozens of sports officials, referees, coaches and players.

No wonder some players have commented that pulling a hair can jerk the whole body, and Li is that hair for China's soccer system, with his investigation likely giving many involved in the game sleepless nights.


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