The Economist has a great article about why China’s soccer team is so terrible. It’s a sordid tale involving political control, corrupt referees, shady gambling networks and bubble speculators:
But the contradictions and weaknesses of Chinese capitalism have also played a part in the country’s footballing ignominy. In the early 1990s, with economic reforms taking hold, China slowly allowed some of its state-run teams to act more like commercial ventures, eventually establishing a professional league of clubs with corporate sponsorships, investments and higher salaries. The pay for players was still quite low in comparison with Europe, but big domestic stars began earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, a fortune at the time. The “professional” football era began in 1994, but as with any other organised activity in China, the state retained control.
In the event, adding heaps of money to an unaccountable bureaucracy made matters worse. State-owned enterprises, seeking glory on the pitch, lavished government money on the teams they sponsored. Private corporate investors followed suit, and cut-throat competition dramatically raised star-player salaries. A similar pay spiral has afflicted other countries’ leagues, too; but, in China, some clubs with less wealthy backers found distinctive and creative ways to survive.
Investors would contrive to fix games as favours to the local officials who nominally controlled the clubs (these types of matches are called “favour”, “relationship” or “tacit” matches, and are not viewed negatively by many within the game). Gambling syndicates, including the triads, began exerting influence over investors, referees, coaches and players. A spoils system evolved, and everyone took their cuts.
The situation has improved of late, thanks in part to an international crackdown on corruption. Still, the damage may already be done — Chinese parents worry that sending their kids to soccer camps will get them caught up in a corrupt ring that rewards money and connections over talent. This is a cautionary tale for the world of cricket, and why I worry about the level of involvement that politicians in South Asia exercise over the game. It makes little sense to me why a sports minister, for example, should have any say over the Sri Lankan cricket team’s selection. There must be a million other important things for a cabinet minister to deal with.
This is also, however, another challenge of rising modernity and growth. In both India and China, rising riches have created an unholy nexus between government and corporate interests. Whereas before, corporations were shunned, regulated and clipped (and let out of the box only with a bribe), now ministers see more money to be made from their corporate clientele (who see more money to be made from getting regulations rigged their way). In a market as potentially rich as cricket in India, you’re going to need some very good administration to keep things in check. And I don’t think we have that in place yet. (For ideas on where to begin, see this post.)