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2022-11-28 09:34:20

Disciplinary authorities in the central province of Hubei have started an anti-corruption investigation into the former head coach of the Chinese men’s soccer team in a high-profile case scrutinizing the country’s wealthy sport sector.

Li Tie is being probed for “serious violations of the laws,” the provincial anti-corruption watchdog said Saturday, without elaborating on the offenses. A disciplinary arm of the General Administration of Sport has also joined the probe, with legal experts claiming that it signals the violations might be related to Li’s work in Hubei province.

Li was reportedly taken away from a hotel in the northeastern Liaoning province on Nov. 9, while participating in a coaching workshop. Meanwhile, Tian Xudong, the chairman of Wuhan Yangtze River soccer club, is also being investigated along with other members of staff, domestic media reported Monday.

A well-famed figure during his earlier career as a midfielder in the 2000s, Li became the head coach of the national men’s soccer team in 2020, aiming to lead the team to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. However, the 45-year-old resigned last year following criticisms of the team’s lackluster performances in the qualifiers, with some accusing him of abusing his power when it came to player selection.

Li earlier coached several football clubs in the Chinese Super League, including the Hubei-based Wuhan Yangtze River — then known as Wuhan Zall — on a contract worth around 12 million yuan ($1.6 million) in 2017. After Li joined the national team, both sides inked another deal, where he would also become the general manager of the club for an annual salary of 30 million yuan.

But the relationship went sour after the club failed to fulfill its potential after performing poorly in the Chinese Super League in 2020. While Li reportedly resorted to asking senior leaders at the Chinese Football Association for help in getting the salary that he was due, the administrative body punished the club in November for not paying players’ salaries in full.

Li’s downfall has sparked discussion on social media. Some critics were quick to underscore Li’s commercial deals, accusing him of taking bribes from sponsors, while others wondered if the high-profile case would set off another wave of anti-graft crackdowns in Chinese soccer.

China has intensified its crackdown on soccer since 2009, punishing dozens of high-profile officials, coaches, and referees over match-fixing, bribes, and fraud, with many even receiving prison sentences. The momentum has been maintained following President Xi Jinping’s calls to stamp out corruption in recent years, with the Chinese Football Association also launching a self-inspection campaign in August, claiming certain types of misbehavior had severely hobbled the sport’s development.

Though acknowledging such efforts have yielded some fruit, insiders warned the risk of corruption might increase amid decreasing financial support and massive salary cuts for players in the wake of a major reform by the authorities back in 2018.

Following the announcement, Li’s statue was removed from a soccer-themed park in the northeastern city of Shenyang on Sunday. The statue was established to commemorate the achievements of Li and China in reaching the 2002 World Cup, the country’s sole appearance at the tournament.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Li Tie attends the World Cup 2022 group A qualifying soccer match between China and Guam in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, May 30, 2021. VCG)