China sentences ex-soccer chief to life in prison in latest crackdown on sports corruption

Hong Kong CNNThe former head of China’s official soccer association has been sentenced to life in prison by a court in the central Chinese province of Hubei, in the latest crackdown on the country’s corruption-plagued professional football league.

The ex-soccer chief, Chen Xuyuan, was jailed on Tuesday alongside multiple senior sporting executives, according to state media, following a months-long investigation.

Despite Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s vision to turn the country into a soccer superpower, its development of high-level professional soccer has been mired by poor financial decision making and deep-rooted corruption.

Chen is among a host of soccer officials ensnared by the ruling Community Party’s ongoing anti-graft probe, which also targeted the association’s former vice-president Yu Hongchen, former national team’s head coach Li Tie, and many others.

Chen also had his assets confiscated and was stripped of his political rights for life, a penalty often slapped on disgraced officials, according to state media.

In sentencing Chen, the Intermediate People’s Court in Huangshi said the defendant leveraged his position to aid companies and individuals he worked with in exchange for monetary rewards, state media reported.

He pocketed $10.6 million (77 million yuan) out of $11.2 million (81 million yuan) he was offered on 217 occasions between 2010 and 2023, according to the court, which called the sum “outlandishly high.”

“[His act] has seriously damaged the order and fairness in the football field and the ecology of the industry, causing severe damages to the national soccer business,” the court said.

Footage showed Chen bowed from the dock. “I hereby apologize to the fans across the country and sincerely say sorry in the hope that I would be forgiven by them,” he said.

The court said it showed leniency since Chen had “admitted and repented his crime” and cooperated with the investigation. China retains the death penalty, including for corruption.

Separately, Chen Yongliang, former vice-secretary general of the soccer association, and Yu, former vice-president, were sentenced to 14 and 13 years, respectively. Dong Zheng, former The Chinese Super League general manager, was jailed for eight years.

China is one of the world’s great sporting powers, with its athletes routinely dominating at major events like the Olympics and Winter Olympics. But it has historically had less success with globally popular team sports such as soccer, with its men’s team struggling to compete at a high level.

Xi, an avowed soccer fan, has tried to change that.

In 2011, Xi, then China’s vice-president, set his sights on the sport’s highest prize of all and outlined a three-stage plan for the men’s national team: to qualify for another World Cup, to host a World Cup and to win a World Cup.

Five years later, the Chinese soccer association unveiled a plan to make the country a “world football superpower” by 2050. But an enduring culture of corruption and financial losses associated with the Covid pandemic have combined to hamper those efforts.

The Chinese men’s soccer team currently sits third in its FIFA World Cup qualify group, with four points, behind group leader South Korea, and second placed Thailand. Last Thursday, the team drew 2-2 with city-state Singapore, in a major blow to the country’s World Cup 2026 dream. The two sides face off again, on Tuesday, in what is being billed as a crunch match for underperforming China.