Murder, Corruption, and the Demise of a Chinese Football Giant
No side has won more Chinese domestic titles than Dalian Shide, but the club was destroyed amid one of the most lurid political scandals Communist China has ever seen.
China has announced itself as a major player in the global football market in recent months, with clubs from the top-tier Chinese Super League (CSL) spending vast sums on importing talent from Europe and South America.
This financial power has, in part, been fuelled by a new TV deal. Signed in October 2015, the agreement is worth around £850m over five years, dwarfing the £6m paid for the previous campaign.
"The nature of that TV deal coming from a major player like China Media Capital – who invested in Manchester City's parent company – at the very least indicates that the 'smart money' feels the football industry in China is exploding," says Mark Dreyer, a journalist and broadcaster based in Beijing who currently runs China Sports Insider.
"It's politically smart to get involved in football right now. It's also a great business opportunity as the government seeks to make the sports industry here the largest in the world within a decade, with football at the forefront.
"That said, it is important to note that a lot can happen in one year in China, let alone five!"
That much is certainly true. Amid news of Ramires joining Jiangsu Suning and Jackson Martinez arriving at Guangzhou Evergrande, the name of Dalian Shide FC has been absent. Just five years ago they were among Chinese football's elite, having won eight league titles and three Chinese FA Cups between 1994 and 2005, but in 2013 the country's most successful club ceased to exist. Dalian were pulled under amid a far bigger scandal, one that began with the murder of a British businessman and ended with life imprisonment for a senior Communist Party politician.
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A 2004 report in The Guardian called Xu Ming "the new Roman Abramovich." It's easy to see why the comparison was made. Xu was the billionaire founder of Shide Group – a conglomerate built on property development, plastics and petrochemicals – based in Dalian, North East China.
He was also the owner of the city's hugely successful football side. By the time Xu purchased the club in 2000, Dalian was firmly established as China's football city, and the chance to buy the team came at just the right moment for a young businessman keen to raise his profile beyond the boardroom.
"North East China is a hotbed of football, Dalian in particular," explains Cameron Wilson, editor of www.wildeastfootball.net.
Those years of unprecedented success, at a time when football had just turned professional in China, had a major effect on the sport in that part of the world. Wilson continues: "In China, people are quite fickle and like to follow the crowd. If you open a mobile phone shop on an empty street and it's a success, soon the entire street will be full of other mobile phone shops.
"So, in the same way, Dalian's success at football in the early days of the pro league in China probably got everyone into the sport, and it's been that way ever since. The number of players who hail from Dalian that have gone on to play in the Chinese Super League is staggering."
Prior to Xu's arrival the team was known as Dalian Wanda, named after its previous owners, The Wanda Group. Their chairman, Wang Jianlin, is now China's wealthiest man with an estimated fortune of $32bn, and holds a 20% share in Spanish giants Atletico Madrid.
But Wang had openly accused officials of match fixing and it has also been suggested that he had grown tired of interference in team affairs from Bo Xilai – the Mayor of Dalian and the city's most powerful politician, who was also a football fanatic.
During the 1990s Bo had helped Xu to secure major construction deals. Purchasing Dalian and ensuring their continued success would help to further the Shide Group's business interests, and cement their relationship.
Unlike Bo, Xu was not a football fan. An article in the weekly Chinese publication Southern Weekend, which was subsequently translated and appeared on Wild East Football, quoted one of his friends as saying: "Not only does Xu Ming not understand football, he also doesn't watch it," adding that, "he only uses football as a chess piece in his business operations."
In Dreyer's words: "The main reason rich guys buy football clubs is to forge better political links."
With his team continuing to win trophies – including successive league titles in 2000, 2001, and 2002 – it wasn't long before Xu was looking to promote himself on a wider stage. In 2002, Dalian Shide entered into a joint venture with Premier League side Newcastle United that was meant to see the formation of a new team in Hong Kong, as well as players and coaches moving between the two clubs. The following year, it was widely reported that Xu was in takeover talks with Leeds United, who were then still a Premier League club. The project with Newcastle sunk without a trace and Xu never bought into Leeds, though both stories generated significant publicity.
Xu then began to scale back his investment in Dalian Shide – their final league and cup triumphs came in 2005 – but his relationship with Bo remained strong. Xu continued to not only invest in projects supported by Bo, who had become Communist Party chief in Chongqing, but also funded the lavish lifestyles of the politician's family. On one occasion Bo's son invited 40 classmates from Harvard to visit Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai, with Xu picking up the tab for flights and accommodation. One presumes they didn't travel economy or sleep in bunk beds.
Meanwhile, Dalian Shide rapidly declined from champions to also-rans, narrowly avoiding relegation in 2008. The following year, Xu tried and failed to sell the club to the Aerbin Group.
Like the club, Xu and Bo's seemingly inexorable rise could not last. The descent began in 2011 following the murder of Neil Heywood – a businessman born in London who had been employed by Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, to manage a luxury villa on the French Riviera paid for by Xu.
Heywood had allegedly tried to extort money from Gu by threatening to expose her network of offshore interests. Taking Heywood out for dinner, Gu got the Englishman drunk, took him back to his hotel room in Chongqing and poisoned him with cyanide.
Bo ultimately failed in his attempts to supress an investigation after falling out with the Chongqing Chief of Police; when the authorities began to look into Bo's business affairs, Xu became a 'person of interest'. Bo was eventually found guilty on charges of corruption that included receiving bribes from Xu to the tune of around $3.5m. Bo and his wife are currently both serving life sentences for their respective crimes.
After testifying at Bo's public trial, Xu was convicted behind closed doors and sentenced to four years in prison, effective from his arrest in 2012. He would have been released this year, but died of a heart attack in a Hubei prison, aged 44, in December 2015.
The football club had preceded its owner. Following Xu's arrest in 2012, a plan was put in place for Dalian Aerbin, formed after Xu failed to sell the club, to merge with Dalian Shide. The Chinese Football Association blocked the merger, so Aerbin effectively purchased and swallowed up Shide, which was officially dissolved on 31 January 2013. The country's most successful club had ceased to exist.
It is not uncommon for teams in China to suddenly go out of business, but what marked out Dalian Shide's demise was the club's status and success. According to Wilson: "It was a massive shock which to this day I don't think the league has recovered from fully.
"If the eight-time champions could simply disappear, then it could happen to any other club. There has been scant consideration given to the concept of football culture and its importance is completely misunderstood by the Chinese football system."
Shide's most loyal fans, known as the Blue Wave, refused to endorse Dalian Aerbin. Wilson recalls: "Aerbin were seen to be a team favoured by local government over Shide, so the Shide fans rejected them." Instead, yet another new club was formed, named Dalian Transcendence, to effectively fill the void and play in Shide's old stadium. Both clubs now reside in League One, the second tier of Chinese domestic football.
The rise and fall of Xu Ming and Dalian Shide provides an insight into the dynamics of football club ownership in China. Dreyer explains: "Clubs can suddenly fold in China, unlike elsewhere, and that is largely due to the changing political winds."
But as the game in China emerges from a period where it has been rocked by scandals involving match fixing and corruption, the outlook is undeniably more positive.
"The businesspeople clearly think the sport is being cleaned up, [hence] their investment, and that's partly why the previous TV deals were so depressed – no sponsors wanted to touch the league a few years ago," says Dreyer.
"It feels as though the league is improving significantly both on and off the field. Guangzhou Evergrande are two-time winners of the Asian Champions League in recent years, and the money is there for all to see."
Even so, Dreyer remains cautious: "Fans here have seen it all, so to speak, so there wouldn't be a total shock if another scandal were to break. The healthy attendance figures for the CSL proves that fans do have renewed confidence in the on-field product after years of match-fixing, however."
The circumstances surrounding Xu's death have become the subject of much speculation. The official statement said 'he continued to have a high degree of interest in football,' but had fallen into a state of 'despair' because Dalian Shide had been performing poorly.
Yet this was a team that had ceased to exist more than two years before his death and which he had tried to offload six years ago.
"I'm not sure there is a coherent voice on Xu's death from Dalian," concludes Wilson. "The single biggest feeling is dismay at losing their team. Chinese football fans often feel powerless to resist things foisted on them from above."
As the end of China's transfer window approaches, fans will speculate as to which big names might be playing in the CSL when the 2016 season kicks off in March. Past lessons suggest that looking any further into the future will yield little in the way of reliable answers.