Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Thursday, December 13, 2001

Sports-Yearender: Bittersweet Year for Chinese Soccer League

Nothing could be sweeter for soccer reformers who launched the professional league in 1994, witnessed its ups and downs and finally reaped something from their reform. However, where there is light, there is shadow.


As its professional soccer league progressed into the eighth year, Chinese soccer fulfilled a dream of 44 years by booking a place in the World Cup finals.

Nothing could be sweeter for soccer reformers who launched the professional league in 1994, witnessed its ups and downs and finally reaped something from their reform.

"The year of 2001 marked the maturity of Chinese soccer," said Yan Shiduo, vice president of the Chinese Football Association (CFA).

When Chinese fans riveted their eyes on the World Cup Asian qualifying rounds from August 25 to October 19, they found with delight that the eight-year-old league had given birth to a batch of professionals, who formed a national team more experienced and composed in international competitions than their predecessors.

The 25-year-old Qi Hong, ace midfielder in Shanghai Shenhua club, justified his talent with four goals and four assists in nine World qualifying ties. He rose among a new generation of stars as soon as he made his professional debut in 1995 and helped Shenhua to their first league title.

Dalian Shide defender Sun Jihai, 24, was a reliable all-arounder proficient in both feet. He began his national service in 1996 when he started in the league. Since then, he has been indispensable every time the national team gathers.

After China qualified for the South Korea-Japan finals, its first division league resumed at the 18th round on October 25.

Dalian Shide, boasting 10 internationals in both senior and junior squads, retained their reign over the first division as they took their sixth title in eight years.

The defending champions, formerly named Dalian Wanda, met little challenge from the other 13 teams to clinch the title with two rounds to go.

"If someone asks which team is the best, you could tell him that you are the very best," Shide head coach Milorad Kosanovic proudly told his players after his side drew Yunnan Hongta in the 24th round for a title-winning 52 points.

"The league is virtually finished for us. FA Cup and Asian Club Cup are our next goals," he said.

The 50-year-old Yugoslavian already led the Liaoning provincial team, anchored by Shide and strengthened by Liaoning Fushun players, to the national championship in the Ninth National Games in November.

"I am very much honored and proud of being the first foreign coach to lead a Chinese provincial team to the national games," said Kosanovic.

Hao Haidong, the league top scorer, said, "Shide have proved as the strongest side by prevailing at crunch time."

Liaoning Fushun, or "Liaoning Tiger Cubs", eighth finishers last year, stayed second with 45 points with two rounds remaining.

Club manager Cheng Penghui was contented with the result. "We have already achieved a good result whatever our final standing is," he said. "Taking the games this season as spadework, we expect better outcome next year."

Shide's longtime rivals Shanghai Shenhua, to be re-named Wenguang club next season, were troubled with inconsistency this season.

One of the title favorites at the start of the season, they have grabbed seven consecutive victories before collecting six losses and thus were out of running for the trophy.

Placed fourth with 42 points, the 2000 runners-up have to work harder to regain second place.

Dark horse Shenzhen Kejian climbed to third place with 43 points after finishing ninth last season.

Under Zhu Guanghu, who had once coached the Chinese junior team, the club in the special economic zone achieved the best league performance in club history.

To the delight of these weaker clubs, CFA canceled relegation in the first division and made it 16 teams in 2002.

Where there is light, there is shadow.

The 2001 season was not without anything to reflect on as match-fixing scandals and refereeing disputes tarnished the image of Chinese soccer, leaving stains on an otherwise glamorous leaf of Chinese soccer history.

In the last few rounds of the second division league, half of the 12 clubs were involved in match-fixing scandals, which disgusted soccer fans and enraged soccer authorities.

As the top two finishers would be promoted into the first division, leading clubs spent no effort earning points and goals in the last moments, including allegedly making deals behind the scenes.

Chengdu Wuniu, who had collected as many as points as second-placed Changchun Yatai but were behind on goal difference, trampled Sichuan Mianyang 11-2 in the 21st round.

They surprisingly came from two goals down to beat Jiangsu Shuntian 4-2 in less than 20 minutes in the last round while Yatai thrashed Zhejiang Lucheng 6-0.

The usually lenient CFA lashed its toughest punishments in the league history.

All the five clubs were ruled ineligible for promotion, Mianyang was demoted to the third division and all the players and coaches tangled in the three questionable matches were deprived of job permission in 2002.

Refereeing was also a center of dispute in the 21st round of the second division as an offside goal of Shanghai Zhongyuan was ruled valid, sparking a short clash between the referees and Guangzhou Jili players, whose side lost 1-0 in that match.

As a result, Jili club received the punishment from the CFA for its disrespect for referees and "improper comments" during post-match news conference.

Less than a month after the end of the second division league, fourth-placed Jili Club's major sponsor Jili Group withdrew from soccer.

Li Shufu, chief of Jili Group, said, "We won't come back until Chinese soccer environment turns better."


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