DISGRACED: Huang Junjie, a former international referee, admits he made unfair calls in China's top soccer league matches in return for bribes from clubs (CFP)
"I worked quite a few of these kinds of games that were rigged from the top," the Beijing Youth Daily quoted Huang as saying.
"For many years, I felt guilty to my parents, guilty to the football fans," said Huang, who was nominated for the Referee of the Year award for the 2009 CSL season.
Cui Weidong, an official in charge of the investigation into the corruption in soccer, said that bribing referees has been a common practice for years. "Football clubs gave bribes to referees through a variety of means. On most occasions, they gave cash directly and the amounts varied according to the importance of the match involved," he said.
Match-fixing allegations are more a recurring illness rather than an accidental flu for China's soccer, and many other problems have bothered it for more than a decade.
From the starting whistle of Lu when the Chengdu and Liaoning clubs played each other in the 1994 season, China's soccer stepped into a new era of professionalism. In its first years, the problem of what is termed "black whistle" referees was not severe as referees received local souvenirs at most.
Starting in 1997, the amounts involved in bribery soared rapidly. A former CFA official said referee's commissions for important matches had reached 100,000 yuan ($15,296).
Allegations of corruption in soccer spread widely before an anti-corruption campaign initiated by Zhejiang Lucheng Club Manager Song Weiping in 2002, and a roster was submitted on nine referees who were alleged to have taken bribes from the club.
Although the campaign won public support, the CFA adopted a policy of "you own up and we'll let bygones be bygones" in handling the allegations.
Finally, referee Gong Jianping, who publicly pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 10 years behind bars for taking 370,000 yuan ($56,595) in bribes as a civil servant. He died of pneumonia in 2004. Besides Gong, only 17 linesmen were punished.
The situation went down the drain as more referees made dubious decisions at the instigation of club managers and CFA officials. The CSL ran the 2005 season without a title sponsorship because of numerous scandals such as match-fixing, the bribing of referees and gambling.
The CFA announced it was joining the Ministry of Public Security to fight against the scandals and a new initiative was taken to crack down on illegal activities in November 2009.
The long-time investigation implicated scores of leading club and CFA officials and referees. Among them were Nan Yong and Yang Yimin, both former Vice Chairmen of the CFA who were arrested for alleged match fixing and bribery in January 2010. Xie Yalong, another former Vice Chairman of the CFA, was arrested for bribery last September.
The Guangzhou and Chengdu clubs in the CSL were relegated and Qingdao Hailifeng Club in the second division was kicked out due to involvement in match-fixing scandals.
Why is the CSL entangled to such a large degree in match-fixing scandals? Despite deafening appeals for fair play from fans, China's soccer, lacking self-discipline and the will to reform itself, still acted like an untamed animal.
Ma Dexing, a journalist with sports newspaper Titan Weekly, said, "These years, people in sports circles are always thinking about how to be responsible to higher authorities rather than to the market or fans."
Chen Peide, former Director of Zhejiang Provincial Sport Bureau, said, "When the corruption first occurred, no one disapproved of it and it gradually turned into common practice, straying further and further from the right path. It is the reason why China's soccer went bad."
Wang Dazhao, a senior reporter with People's Daily, said the "fatal weakness" of China's soccer was a lack of professionalism in the sport.
"We have only a superficial knowledge about soccer," said Wang. "We take it as just a contest producing a winner and the loser, but in other countries it's deemed not only a sport but also a kind of culture. When soccer was connected to big money and everyone wanted to profit from it, it went wrong from the very beginning."
The root of the problem issues from a "one office, three signs" situation. The CFA also functions as the Soccer Administrative Center of the General Administration of Sport and runs the CSL Co. that is responsible for managing sponsorships and the business affairs of the league. The same body acts concurrently as supervisor, administrator and operator, resulting in vulnerability to corruption.
Wei Di, Director of the Soccer Administrative Center of the General Administration of Sport, said a new mechanism has been adopted which means no CFA leader, including himself, can decide the assigning of referees—and 20 percent of the referees working in the 2011 CSL season are new.
Efforts have been intensified to separate the operations of the CSL from the CFA, and the latter will now only serve as the governing body of the sport.