Football pitches were few and far between in Shanghai in the eighties. My university had a dirt field, any grass long trampled to oblivion, on which any and all matches were played. It wasn’t an environment conducive to attractive play; the ball bounced high and erratically, the stones studded into the playing surface took a toll on knees and elbows and, anyway, Fudan wasn’t really a football college. Its volleyball team was its pride and joy. However, Tongji, the science faculty just across the way, has always been football obsessed; these days they still regularly reach the latter stages of the National University League but back then ambitions were limited to being city champions.

In 1984, a friend at Tongji invited me over for one of the climactic matches of the season. Tongji’s own dirt field was transformed; the small stand on one side was packed and the running track filled with students, maybe 3000 in all. But things didn’t go the way of the home team. Perhaps undone by the occasion, Tongji lost. Chinese fans don’t tend to take defeat well, especially if the winner is controversial. This time, a corner was swung in, there was a scramble on the line and the referee awarded the goal on the advice of the linesman. There was no way back and, once time was up, the consensus was Tongji had been cheated. Of course they had been – only the referee and his linesman saw the ball cross the line and how could they have let it stand in good faith? The referee and his colleagues ran from the campus with the odd stone whistling past their ears to encourage them on their way.

I had no idea whether the ball had gone in but also had no reason to doubt the honesty of the official. Then again, the default position of the English fan is to question the capability of the ref if he mucks up. In China, it’s a Black Whistle. A bad call would likely as not be the result of a backhander.

No one takes appearances at face value in China. Although there have been match-fixing scandals elsewhere, even in England, the general consensus is that a match is Eleven Against Eleven. But in China victory isn’t always the most important thing.

Perhaps in part that’s due to the lack of truly competitive football before the professional era, especially the importance of prestige friendlies. If all that matters is to put on a show and avoid humiliation, then why worry about the victory? Add to that the avoidance of loss of face so important in east Asia and there are any number of reasons to doubt your own eyes. There had clearly been arrangements in the past; in 1991, in the semi-pro days, Liaoning faced Dalian away on the last day of the eight-team top flight. They were already champions but Dalian (from the same province) required a win to avoid the drop. A season that had seen an average of barely two goals a game was suddenly enlivened by a 5-4 victory for the home team. As if that weren’t amazing enough, the Liaoning forward Sun Wei scored all four in the losing effort and became the league’s top scorer as a result.

I’m not certain I’ve ever been at a fixed match, but I’ve had my suspicions.

As producer of the Star TV Hong Kong crew, we broadcast the climax of the first professional season live from Chengdu; Sichuan Quanxing against Dalian Wanda. We hadn’t been able to film in Dalian in 1994 so this was the first time Wanda had been on international TV, and it was apparent that the club was keen to showcase themselves. Club bigwigs were flitting round the team hotel and their players looked confident and relaxed in training; no surprise of course, they’d already been crowned champions by a comfortable margin and the only thing left was to see off the opposition and lift the trophy.

Sichuan, on the other hand, seemed distracted. They had performed far better than anyone expected and were guaranteed a mid-table finish. They had some quality players, notably Ma Mingyu, an attacking midfielder with a devastating left-foot shot. And they’d gone unbeaten at home all season with some spectacular performances, a 4-1 thrashing of Beijing Guoan being a particular highlight. This season would surely have a hell of a finale.

But when I talked to some of the Sichuan players, they didn’t seem convinced.

“I think this might be a bit difficult.”

“Dalian are a really good team.”

“I’m not sure we can win this one.”

Dalian were 3-0 up in little over 20 minutes. The third was a horrible goalkeeping error. Having said that, Sichuan fought back well, scoring twice and nearly equalising towards the end. Was it fixed? I don’t know, we’ve all seen matches where one team has been caught cold at the start and effectively lost there and then. But this particular outcome suited everybody. Dalian could celebrate as champions and had advertised themselves across Asia, while Sichuan’s impressive comeback meant they didn’t lose face and their sixth place was more than they ever expected.

When match-fixing becomes part of life, unusual yet valid results become tainted. The following season Sichuan, by then flirting with the drop, beat Yanbian 6-0. The Yanbian players, convinced the referee had been got at, started passing the ball to the man in black. But we’d filmed Sichuan twice in the previous few weeks against the title contenders Guangdong Hongyuan and Shanghai Shenhua and, although they’d been beaten by the only goal on both occasions, they’d been unlucky not to get points. What happened that day is unknown, but the 6-0 just seemed one of those results where everything had gone right for the winners. The score was hardly beyond the realms of possibility.

Later in the 1995 season, I spent a very pleasant evening in the company of Xu Tao, a former national team keeper and, at the time, an assistant coach at Dalian. Among other things, we discussed the relegation picture. Two were going down and only Sichuan, Liaoning and Qingdao were in contention. Qingdao had just been promoted, Sichuan had misfired after the previous year’s heroics but Liaoning’s position was a real surprise. They had been the biggest name in Chinese football in the decade prior to the professional league. They’d been Asian champions in 1990, the first Chinese club to be so honoured. But their great players had grown old and hadn’t really been replaced. The Liaoning club hierarchy hadn’t taken the new club structure required by professionalism as seriously as they might – there was no lucrative link with a local company as there was elsewhere and when they lost their main striker, Li Bing, to Guangdong in the first major inter-club transfer in the close season, they failed to replace him. I thought they were going down with Qingdao. But Xu Tao disagreed.

“No, you don’t understand Chinese football. Liaoning cannot go down.”

“But…”

“Liaoning cannot go down. Something will be done.”

In the second-last round of matches, Sichuan beat Qingdao 3-2, while Liaoning lost 2-1 at home to Guangzhou Apollo to slip into the relegation zone. No shadowy arrangement came to their rescue, Liaoning were relegated fair and square. Perhaps, just for once, Chinese football was on the level.

If it had been then, things unravelled fairly quickly. In 1997, a colleague filmed a profile of Yu Genwei, the rising young star at Tianjin Lifei (now Teda), and when I saw him in London he told me he had witnessed the most obvious fix. The match he saw, against Yanbian, had a great deal at stake for the home team. Tianjin were in serious trouble and eventually went down. However, despite the importance of the game, he’d been able to film training and mix with the players quite freely. He’d also struck up a good relationship with one of Tianjin’s foreign players, Manuel Marin. Life for the foreigners in the early years of professionalism was very different to now. On the whole, they were lower-league stalwarts up for a bit of adventure. They were also quite isolated so when a new face turned up, especially one capable of speaking Spanish, they opened up. 

And there was one big issue on Marin’s mind. He was injured. He’d played injured for some time and he was worried about the long-term damage this might cause. He’d told the club there was a problem but as a (relatively) well-paid foreign star he was still expected to go out and perform.

Before this particular match, though, he received some good news. “It’s OK,” he was told, “you won’t be needed today.” In his absence, Tianjin spent the first half ripping Yanbian apart with Yu Genwei, the subject of a profile likely to be seen internationally, scoring a hat-trick.

The stories kept on coming. In 2001, there were a ludicrous number of strange results at the end of the second-tier season which resulted in sanctions scattered liberally on both players and clubs. Chengdu Wuniu’s 11-2 win over their complicit local rivals Mianyang, with six goals in the first 20 minutes, was merely the most eye-catching of some bizarre matches.

Then, two years later, came perhaps the biggest scandal of all. I was on a job on Hainan Island on the last day of the season, looking forward to watching a nail-biting final round on TV. Two Shanghai clubs were in contention for the title; Shenhua led by a single point but had a tough fixture away to Shenzhen. If they slipped up, then Inter, in only their second season in the top division, would become champions with a victory.

As I switched channels between the two matches, the afternoon unfolded. Shenzhen scored within five minutes and then, as Shenhua chased the game in the second half, took the favourites apart 4-1, the young Shenzhen striker Li Yi scoring, a foretaste of the sort of performance that would give the club their first-ever title a year later. That left Shenhua waiting on an unlikely score from Shanghai, where Inter were at home to lowly Tianjin Teda.

In front of their horrified fans, and against a team which offered very little, Inter put in as inept a display as I have ever seen. Tianjin scored just before the interval and then again with 10 minutes to go. With the screen cutting away to Inter ultras weeping in frustration, Wang Yun scored a late consolation. To lose the title was one thing, to lose when it was so obviously within their grasp was quite another. Still, as Inter’s star player Shen Si said when interviewed after the game, “These things happen in football.”

Shen Si was born in 1973 in the Yangpu District of Shanghai, the area just north of the Bund where the Huangpu River widens and curves up towards the Yangtze. It was filled with the sort of drab tenements in which so much of the city’s population were housed in those days, and which are now largely gone. His father taught him to play in their cramped surrounds and, perhaps as a consequence, he developed remarkable close control. He was enrolled in the local sports school and fast tracked to Shanghai’s football squad. He signed professionally for newly-formed Shenhua in 1993, just before the launch of the league, and despite his relative youth played in every game in the 1994 season. Shenhua finished third, and were a little erratic in their performances, but the next season they were imperious and won the title with matches to spare. Shen missed some of the season through injury but offset that disappointment by making his debut for the national team.

Over the following few years, Shen became a major star. He was a regular in a Shenhua team that finished runners-up five times in six seasons (behind Dalian on each occasion) and from 1998 he was a regular international, featuring in China’s 2000 Asian Cup campaign in which they finished fourth. He was a stylish midfielder, wearing number 14 in tribute to Johan Cruyff and professing a love for the Barcelona way of playing. He was especially potent from dead-ball situations and finished second at an international Free Kick Masters event in Spain in 2004, ahead of Zinedine Zidane.

With Shenhua’s former superstar Fan Zhiyi trying his luck abroad, Shen was perhaps the best-known sports personality in Shanghai. His wedding in 2002 was a star-studded occasion, with bride and groom exchanging vows in a hot-air balloon above the city, and he even managed a cameo appearance in a Graham Norton travelogue. Norton was taken by the handsome athlete he encountered while filming in a Shanghai nightclub. They shot a sequence in which Norton tried to save a penalty from Shen, the punchline being that he was wearing an England goalkeeper’s jersey: “I had to come all the way to China to get Seaman on my back.”

But on the field, things hadn’t gone quite as well. Shen left Shenhua for Inter in 2002 after the new coach Xu Genbao made it clear he didn’t fit his plans and, despite playing in the qualifiers, he missed out on selection for China’s World Cup squad that same year. Though he did well enough in 2003 to be selected for the end-of-season All Star team, he was by then struggling with injury.

In October 2010, Shen Si was arrested and accused of match-fixing. It turned out that the match against Tianjin, the one that cost Inter their title, had been crooked.

It can be hard for outsiders to appreciate just how fast the pace of change has been in China. When I arrived in 1983, the area around my university, not far from where Shen Si was growing up, was right on the edge of town, with those shoddy apartment blocks making way for fields as the urban area petered out into the countryside. The centre of Shanghai scarcely looked different to the city the communists conquered in 1949. Even a decade on, things had barely changed; I had cause to review some views of the city I shot in 1994 and was quite struck by how drab life still was then. A year later, before a match at Hongkou Stadium, we were able to film (through a very powerful lens) workers putting the finishing touches to the Pudong TV Tower, the very first tall structure to go up opposite the Bund. When Shen Si turned professional, he was sharing a room in the team dormitory next to the Jiangwan Stadium, and allowed home just one day a week. According to an interview he gave in 2018, his wage was officially a hundred yuan a month, around £10. Just because room and board was free, and every good result might mean a nice bonus from the club bosses, it didn’t mean there was a great deal to spend his wages on.

The next few years saw the city alter beyond recognition. He came to have access to wealth and fame beyond anything he could have dreamed of. He commanded a seven-figure salary, he was given a luxury home in the city suburbs after his marriage and yet, at the same time, he could not have been unaware that his sport was becoming seriously corrupted. People higher than him, wealthier than him, were acting with apparent impunity. And if these people thought the matches didn’t really matter, why should he not cash in?

The story that came out at the trial seemed to show that this particular scandal happened as the unintended consequences of a Chinese FA decision. The idea had been to re-boot the domestic game in 2004 with the creation of a Chinese Super League. Twelve clubs would be selected which meant three of the 15 in the 2003 top flight would lose their licences, to be determined by league placements over two seasons. Although the three worst teams in 2003 were obvious early in the campaign, this rule put Tianjin Teda at great risk of losing their license to the third-bottom team, Chongqing Lifan.

Before the final match of the season, Tianjin’s CEO, Zhang Yifeng, called Inter Shanghai’s sponsor Xu Zetian and offered 12 million yuan (over £1 million at the time) for the three points that would guarantee qualification for the 2004 CSL. Xu turned him down flat. His team had the chance to win a title and he wasn’t going to cooperate. However, there was another actor in the game, the CFA vice-president Nan Yong. He wanted Tianjin to stay up, apparently because relegating them instead of hapless Chongqing would cause ridicule. Under Nan’s direction, Zhang offered Shen Si six million yuan to manage the fix.

The cash was driven 1000km from Tianjin to Shanghai overnight and Shen recruited three other players, Qi Hong, Li Ming and the goalkeeper Jiang Jin, to ensure the result went as planned.

Shen Si retired a couple of years later and went into management. He set up a junior club in Shanghai, Lucky Star, which began preparing young talent for the professional game.

All the while, though, corruption went unchecked at all levels. There were plenty more dubious results, some truly ludicrous. Second-tier Qingdao Hailifeng threw a 2007 match against Chengdu Blades, helping the latter win promotion. Two years later, the same club started trying to score past their own keeper against the overmatched Sichuan Meilianshu so their owner could collect on a bet for the number of goals in the match.

In 2010, Shen was coaching Shanghai Zobon, steering them away from relegation to the third level, when he suddenly vanished. He had been taken into custody and, after months of interrogation, he reappeared in 2012 in an orange jumpsuit along with numerous other players and officials. Among many bans and sentences, Nan Yong got 10-and-a-half years in prison, while Shen Si was jailed for six and fined half a million yuan. He’s out now, and still involved tangentially with his Lucky Star club. Not fully, though, as he’s serving a life ban from involvement with the game.

Has the problem been resolved? Perhaps truly egregious incidents are rarer. Fan reactions can be unpredictable as well; there were suspicions that a Shenhua player deliberately underperformed while in financial dispute with the club but, although this might bring down opprobrium if it happened elsewhere, Shanghai’s ultras seemed to accept that this particular fan favourite may have had a point. However, when one of Harbin Yiteng’s foreign imports scored a late equaliser against promotion-chasing Dalian Aerbin in a 2015 League One match and several of their players appeared distraught at their own team winning an unexpected point, supporters were outraged. They spent the next game deliberately destroying an enormous club banner, and the team moved south to Shaoxing in the close season.

This, perhaps, is just a facet of the Chinese game that is incapable of resolution.