Scandal-hit CSL kicks off amid hopes

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Opening ceremony of the new CSL season held in Guiyang Olympic Center in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, on Mar.11, 2012.

Opening ceremony of the new CSL season held in Guiyang Olympic Center in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, on Mar.11, 2012.

It may take just two hours for China's league champion to dismantle its South Korean counterpart, but it would take years to rebuild the image of Chinese Super League(CSL) which was marred by corruption and poor performances.

The CSL unveiled its ninth season on an exulting note Saturday after its defending champion Guangzhou Evergrande destroyed the South Korean champion Jeonbuk Motors 5-1 in an away AFC Champions League match three days ago.

A biggest margin against a South Korean team in as many years, the emphatic drubbing offered some hope of revival to the troubled Chinese league which has just seen many soccer officials and referees jailed in graft scandal.

"Evergrande's triumph shows that the Chinese soccer teams are able to win big matches. If we peg away at our job, the Chinese soccer will be blessed in future," said Chinese soccer chief Wei Di ahead of the start of the CSL.

"After fighting corruption and gambling for years, the Chinese soccer need to lick its wounds and stand up again. We should first build a healthier soccer league that could attract fans again and set up more high-quality academies for the younsters as well.

"Now the Chinese soccer is just like a patient. I hope all the parties concerned could give support, make constructive suggestions and help the league grow from ruins," Wei added.

China launched the current crackdown on match-fixing in 2009, hoping to root out gambling, bribery, and other forms of corruption that are blamed for sapping the competitiveness of the Chinese soccer.

However, the league's problems could date back at least until 2001, when allegations of match throwing and bribery of referees first emerged.

Meanwhile, China's performance in international competition slumped as soccer's popularity among fans lost ground in favor of basketball and young players turned away from the sport in droves.

China failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, for the third time in a row. In its only World Cup appearance in 2002, China lost all three games, conceding nine goals and scoring none.

The campaign finally brought down top Chinese Football Association (CFA) heads Nan Yong and his successor Xie Yalong and vice head Yang Yimin.

In February, just one month before the new season was launched, Yang was convicted of accepting bribes worth 1.25 million yuan (200,000 U.S. dollars) from about 20 clubs and sentenced to 10 and a half years in jail. Dozens of other league and club officials have also been brought before the courts.

Besides, four top referees, including one who officiated in the 2002 World Cup, were sentenced to up to seven years in prison after being charged with corruption and match-fixing.

Former CFA heads Nan and Xie are awaiting trial.

"This season will be hotly contested as many teams have put up strong forces, and 13 out of 16 Super League sides have hired foreign coaches, I think it's possible that taking bribery or gambling emerge again. We will give it all out to fight these scandals," said Liu Dianqiu, a top official with the CFA and the league as well.

The new season will see more foreign referees officiate in matches. Domestic referees will be distributed under a draw lots system and asked to take lessons and tests organized by the CFA to enhance their level.

"We also welcome whistleblowing on suspective matches. If we find the report authentic, we will give the whistleblower a prize money," Liu added.

Officials hope these initiatives could stop rot in soccer once and for all, while fans just expect to see a fair and high-level match.

For years, some of the crooked match calls were so obvious that fans began to riot or the victimised teams walked off the pitch. China Central Television(CCTV) for parts of several seasons refused to broadcast CSL matches due to the scandal.

But last year fans' thought seemed to be changed as the campaign against graft got underway. The CFA said that in 2011 a total of 4.23 million fans poured into the stadia to watch CSL matches on the spot, a new reocrd since the CSL was launched in the year of 2004. CCTV will also resume broadcasting CSL matches.

The competitiveness will be raised above usual level this season as many stars, led by French striker Nicolas Anelka, have landed in the oriental soccer league.

Anelka has faced many challenges over a long career, which has seen him play for Real Madrid, Chelsea and Arsenal.

But at the start of a new CSL season this weekend, millions of soccer fans in China are watching Shanghai Shenhua's big-name signing to see if he can turn around a league devastated by low-level performance.

Some pundits predicted that the imports of foreign stars would dampen domestic players' chances of getting on the picth and thus do harm to the buildup of the national team.

But it's like a double-edge sword as the Chinese players can also learn from the stars without playing for foreign soccer clubs.

"Brazilians forwards Muriqui and Cleo and Argentine Dario Conca contributed all five goals for the visiting side(Guangzhou Evergrande), but it doesn't mean domestic players of Guangzhou did not have a part in the victory. Our national players like Gao Lin, Zhang Linpeng and Zhao Xuri were all involved in attacking. Actually they have improved a lot since playing with these foreign stars," Xu Yang, a former national player, said of Guangzhou Evergrande's 5-1 victory against Jeonbuk Motors.

In 2011, Guangzhou kicked off the new era in China by embarking on a massive spending spree that helped the team win the domestic title for the first time and by a margin of 15 points.

"I hope we can have more Guangzhou Evergrande sides, they can make the league more competitive and attractive and it will benefit the Chinese league in the long run," said Cui Dalin, a former top sports official who used to be in charge of soccer.

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