Refereeing Controversies Plague Chinese Super League

To avoid a repeat of refereeing controversies from the first phase of the Chinese Super League, the Chinese Football Association invited two South Korean referees, Ko Hyung Jin and Kim Hee Gon, to oversee some key matches during the second phase of the league, including the game between Beijing Guoan and Shandong Luneng. However, their attempt seemed to fail. A significant controversy came when Luneng’s second goal was disallowed, which enabled Guoan to eliminate Luneng 4-3 on aggregate.

The result irritated Luneng fans and many players expressed anger towards the referees on social media. Hao Junmin, captain of Luneng, posted: “No principles, no fairness, no capability, no bottom line” on his Weibo. Róger Guedes, a Brazilian player for Luneng, said “shame this is not football” on his Instagram story. Another Brazilian player, Moisés Lima Magalhães, also sent “Shame” in Portuguese on his Instagram. Besides athletes, annoyed fans poured into different football-themed platforms to leave comments that “bad calls were, are, and will continue destroying Chinese football.”

Anger from the Luneng side has been accumulating for a while. In the first phase between Shandong Luneng and Beijing Guoan, referee Shen Yinhao awarded Beijing Guoan a penalty and then allowed Beijing’s equalizing goal to stand, which made Luneng lose its lead. On both occasions, Luneng players questioned Shen’s decisions and requested him to check the video but Shen ignored their pleas. The game finally ended 2-2 and Luneng believed that they would have won if they had received fair treatment.

The club itself wrote to the Chinese Football Association to complain, but fans were not satisfied with just the letter. They checked Shen’s published papers and found that his paper Research on the Causes and Countermeasures of the Psychological Pressure of College Student Football Referees, published in the Journal Sports Fashion, was suspected of plagiarizing Lu Yunfei’s University Football Referee Research on the Causes and Countermeasures of Stage Fright, which was published five years earlier. Luneng fans claimed that the content of Shen’s paper was almost the same as Lu’s work and Shen only made some modifications in the paragraph order. What’s more, Shen’s master thesis was also suspected of plagiarism. As a faculty member in the Physical Education Department of Tongji University, Shen soon left his referee work and returned to Shanghai to defend the plagiarism charges. The case is still under investigation. If Shen is found guilty, his degree and faculty position would be revoked and he might receive further punishment from the Chinese Football Association that might threaten his qualification as a FIFA-listed referee.

After Shen was reported, the association decided to invite a foreign referee for the second round and Kim Hee Gon, a Korean international referee, was selected. The game went smooth in the first 70 minutes with one goal for each side, but in the 69th minute, when Guedes scored again, giving Luneng the lead, there was more controversy. After viewing the VAR, Kim wiped out the goal as the referee ruled Guedes had fouled in the buildup. While Luneng players were fuming over Kim’s decision, Beijing kicked another goal into the net just two minutes later. However, Renato Augusto, who assisted the goal, was suspected of a handball. In the last thirty minutes of the game, Luneng poured forward aggressively, but fortune was not with them and they had to accept the fact that they were eliminated from the semi-final.

When the game ended, inflamed Luneng coaches and players rushed towards and bombarded Kim and his colleagues. The referee team had to leave the field with the protection of police. However, Jin Jingdao, a midfielder for Luneng, claimed that it was not Kim’s decision to wipe out the goal, but the VAR’s. Although Jin deleted this post later, Ma Ning, who was working as the video assistant referee in the game, was still pushed under the spotlight. Luneng fans immediately started to check Ma’s publications and reported he once published his same papers in multiple journals simultaneously 13 years ago, which was forbidden.

Football referees are losing trusts and respect from football supporters. Ten years ago, in a nationwide crackdown against corruption in the football field, a group of referees were accused of match-fixing scandals and sentenced to jail, including Lu Jun, who was the first Chinese referee to supervise the World Cup. Since then, Chinese football has been trying hard to rebuild its credibility. This year, the association released a new policy to punish misjudgments. If a referee makes a bad call, the person would be suspended for at least one match and at most eight matches. The Chinese Football Association hoped to train local referees with high standards and select outstanding ones to be qualified for the World Cup two years later. However, there is still a huge gap for Chinese local referees to reach the same level as international elite referees.

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The whole farce mirrors the messy environment of Chinese football. After the 2002 World Cup, Chinese football were trapped in a vicious cycle: poor performance in international games, a big-money contract to invite foreign coaches or naturalize players, and disappointing international performances. Fans can do nothing but take to social media to condemn the team. The performance of a local referee irritated fans. To avoid controversies, the league spent $300 per day to invite foreign referees but bad calls still persisted. Similarly, powerless fans could not challenge the association directly; therefore, they switched to the academia field and wished to find blots on those referees’ past. A common mistake made here was to treat the symptoms but not the root cause, and thereby the overall situation has not been improved.

Many people blamed fans for their craziness and believed that they should separate a referee’s academia history and career. Certainly, we should not encourage football fans to check people’s past whenever they are dissatisfied with a call, but their actions alarmed football professionals that fans’ patience has been running out. Local referees certainly need room and time for growth, but the advancement of the current referee training system cannot wait. The development of Chinese football is not only about those 11 who run in the field, but also related to those who watch games, those who commentate games, those who supervise games, and those who manage games.