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Monday, 27 January 2014

True Football Stories, Part 1: Shaolin Soccer

Yet another straight red.

Our True Football Stories series kicks off with a remarkable piece of coverage from John Dobson...


In a frank confession on Oprah Winfrey's chat show, head coach and former star player of Team Evil, Hung, admitted widespread doping offences during Team Evil's long reign as Hong Kong Open Cup champions. Hung has already been stripped of his chairmanship of the HKFA and is now likely to be subjected to criminal trials for corruption, fraud and drug offences. Prosecutors are likely to accept plea bargains and a five-year term, but Hung is likely to receive a life ban from all football activity. Additionally, Team Evil players will also face doping tribunals with the possibility of sine die bans being imposed.

Team Evil were surprisingly beaten in the final of last season's competition by Team Shaolin, bringing an end to Team Evil's seven-year winning streak. Those seven years were beset by accusations of bullying anyone who questioned the veracity of performances and bullish press conferences where the only notable voices of dissent were from a pair of crusading Irish journalists.

Eventually, the overwhelming number of witnesses prepared to come forward made Hung's position increasingly untenable, leading to the appearance on Oprah where he answered a series of yes/no questions and made public what he had for so long denied. Former team members - many indicted in a damning HKADA report and most approaching retirement - were content to take reduced bans in return for their testimony in getting to Hung, the lynchpin of the whole operation. With Team Evil being stripped of all seven titles won in the disputed period, the governing body had the difficult task of deciding whether to award those elsewhere and, if so, to whom.

With many doping scandals having been uncovered during the time period under review, it could have gone down to losing quarter-finalists before a team beyond suspicion could lay a claim, so instead those seven years will be marked with 'no winner' in the record books, effectively rendering the entire period as void.

Team Shaolin, led by former Team Evil player 'Golden Leg' Fung who was dumped by the team for his anti-doping stance and disappeared into relative obscurity, have also had to defend the believability of their own performances. After years of being duped, journalists are naturally wary and star man Sing became noticeably edgy when answering the same set of questions for the eighth time in the competition following the win over Team Evil.

Suspicions over Team Shaolin are easy to understand. They came from nowhere to win the cup at their first attempt after all, and saw off a Team Evil side in the final that were using highly sophisticated PEDs. Could we believe what we were seeing? Fung's determination to be seen not just as winners, but also clean winners, saw him invite journalists to embed themselves in the training camp and see for themselves what was going on, but it will take a long time for opinions to change. A change at the top of the governing body following Hung's fall from grace are committed to setting up a truth and reconciliation commission to try to uncover the sins of the past and start getting the sport back on track in the eyes of a sceptical public while efforts to ensure it remains drug-free continue. Continued success of the likes of Team Shaolin, who the public have largely warmed to, can only help restore the image.


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