Go to a game in China and almost upon arrival you’ll hear the words hei shao — “black whistle,” meaning the refs are in somebody’s pocket — being yelled by loud mouthed, outspoken (and usually tipsy/drunk) fans who have a particular disdain for the way the referees are calling the match. As the game goes on and the home crowd becomes more disgusted with the calls (or the scoreboard), the noise crescendos with more oraganized, in unison chants of huan caipan, “change the referee.” And when that request is ultimately refused by the men in stripes, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, and China’s favorite in-arena projectile, lighters, are hurled at the court in a final dramatic display of discontent.
Though never formally proven, bribery, corruption and game-fixing have all suspected for years, and it’s considered common knowledge by many — lighter-throwing fans obviously included — that referees engage in dishonest, under the table behavior.
In soccer, however, widespread corruption has left a permanent black eye on both the domestic leagues and the national team. The Chinese Super League, China’s professional domestic soccer league, has repeatedly been plagued by match-fixing and corruption scandals over the last several years, with both players and officials accepting bribes at various times from gambling syndicates and influential bookies. Match-fixing so serious in fact, that it goes all the way back to a referee who took the field at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
This year in the CBA, while all of those issues haven’t exactly gone away, they’ve taken shotgun to another problem that’s steered this season onto a rocky road: Quality.
Ongoing frustration with the way games are being called, especially late in tight games, have led some to believe that the root of these problems stem from poorly trained or poorly developed refs who are simply in over their heads. And instead of trudging down the same tired, endless road of zebra corruption, an article posted on NetEase’s CBA site is blaming the league’s new crop of young refs for that drop in officiating quality this year.
According to the article, there are 342 referees registered with the CBA this season, 35 of which are international level. However, the CBA demands that 42 international level refs are needed in order to guarantee every match over the course of the year is officiated at the highest level. That means seven so-called “young referees,” referees who are inexperienced and presumably unqualified for the job, have been running up and down the courts with whistles in their mouths making, as an an anonymous senior official put it to the author, “more calls than the other [veteran] referees,” disrupting the flow of the game, and ruining the quality of in-game officiating. And even among those who are on an international level, there is a huge gap in the level and quality in which games are officiated.
But, most of the article’s wrath is directed towards these so-called nianqing caipan, “young referees,” who are ruining the game with their brash overconfidence and unwillingness to improve:
…Some young referees can be cocky, they don’t pay attention to their [on-court] positioning or try to correct their attitude. They feel they’ve already made it and they feel extremely good about themselves… To add, some referees only strive to improve elements that exist only on the surface, things just for show. They want to become these big-name high-profile names, but they lack the essential basic skills.
“We point out these shortcomings and insufficiencies with the hope that they can improve as quickly as possible. That way they can quickly develop,” said an anonymous CBA figure.
The article also mentions a change this year in preparatory pre-game official meetings. Before, “the lead official used to do most of the talking,” but now when officials meet before games to discuss things “like the two teams’ position in the standings, prior history, players and coaches’ tendencies, it’s the deputy official who’s speaking the most.” What’s more, officials constantly disagree with each other during these meetings and generally don’t pay attention, which also affects their work on the court.
Finally, the author points out that refs are “soft,” especially the younger ones who are more likely to be swayed by an expressive and argumentative head coach on the sideline. He points to a specific situation in Shanghai’s home match against Liaoning in Round 23 where the league had to do an internal investigation on that team of referees after they failed to control a sideline altercation between Liaoning head coach, Guo Shiqiang, and Shanghai head coach, Bob Donewald.
Donewald, an American who also acts as head coach of the Chinese National Team, has been the league’s most outspoken critic of Chinese refs. He apparently set a record for most technicals in a season, seven, and only missed out on an opportunity to make more history because he was suspended for a match late in the season after he repeatedly berated officials during the Sharks’ Round 29 loss against Fujian SBS. His chief issue, which he has brought up several times during the year, is the Chinese refs’ inability or unwillingness to protect their own players from overly aggressive and dangerous play. Team China’s brawl with a Brazilian club team in October went down largely in part because the ref didn’t blow the whistle on an obvious intentional foul, and Donewald’s suspension for Round 30 was a result of a ref not calling a foul on a hard collision that left Team China’s captian, Liu Wei, writhing on the ground with a severely bruised chest.
If the CBA is to ever reach credible status in the minds of its fans, getting control over how games are reffed should be its priority. Problem is, however, in this still largely bureaucratic league, change comes from the top and it often comes slow. And seeing that officiating is getting worse instead of better, the CBA — as the NBA has found out in the last few years — still has quite a ways to go if they’re ever going to be a sustainable and respectable league in China.