Fans are astonished after it emerged that Li Tie, the former head coach of the Chinese men's soccer team, is under investigation for "suspected serious violations of discipline and law".
The news comes as another blow to Team China fans, who are hurting over their team's absence from the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
According to a statement by the Hubei Provincial Commission for Discipline Inspection on Saturday, the 45-year-old Li is under investigation by the national discipline inspection team and the Hubei supervision commission. Li was head coach of Wuhan Zall in Hubei before taking over the national side.
Although no details of the case have been released, the brief statement still shocked the Chinese soccer community, and became the top trending news on most Chinese social media platforms over the weekend. The hashtag "Li Tie under investigation" had been viewed over 600 million times in just five hours by Saturday morning, with most netizens expressing their astonishment and frustration at the troubles of Chinese soccer.
"From a star player to the head coach of Team China, Li Tie is now under investigation for suspected serious violations of discipline and law. Apart from astonishment, what we actually need is a comprehensive investigation," read a commentary by Chinanews.com.
"As the Chinese saying goes, we have to 'dig out the carrot to see the dirt', as we need to build a cleaner environment for Chinese soccer. We should leave no room for any illegal activities in Chinese soccer."
According to Beijing Youth Daily, Li's last public appearance was early this month when he attended a soccer clinic at a sports university in Shenyang, Liaoning province, where he posed for pictures with students. On Nov 9, Li attended a senior coach training session conducted by the Chinese Football Association in Dalian, where he was taken away for investigation.
"It's still not clear whether Li Tie's case has any connection with his stint in charge of the national team or whether there are any other prominent figures of Chinese soccer involved. But this will surely be a new storm in Chinese soccer, which attracts huge attention from society," read the Beijing Youth Daily report.
As a former Everton midfielder and star national team player, Li took the Team China reins in January 2020 from Marcello Lippi. The Italian World Cup-winning coach was at the helm for the start of China's Qatar World Cup qualifying campaign but resigned after a disappointing defeat to Syria in November 2019.
Li enjoyed some initial success as the team secured a place in the final phase of Asian zone qualifying in June 2021.
However, Team China managed just one win in that final phase, against Vietnam in October 2021, a month before Li's final game in charge — a draw against Australia.
Those disappointing results and his sparing use of the squad's naturalized stars sparked heavy criticism from fans. And the coach's emotional outburst after the game against Australia, when he branded his detractors "mental", only served to give his critics more ammunition.
Li was engulfed in more controversy when he erased the logo of Team China's sponsor from pictures he posted on Weibo in November 2021. He was also accused of using his position to plug several other products in the same post. All of these incidents culminated in his resignation as Team China head coach.
As a member of the only Chinese squad to play at a World Cup, in 2002, there had been high hopes for Li when he was installed in the job, with fans also valuing his experience as a player at English top-flight club Everton across four seasons.
However, all those expectations have evaporated now.
"Li Tie is an iconic name for Chinese soccer, and fans are very familiar with him. During his playing days, he was the iron midfielder of the national team and he shone at the 2002 World Cup," read the Chinanews.com commentary.
"From his peak to his current low, Li Tie has always been at the forefront of Chinese soccer… Chinese soccer has been criticized for many years for its poor performance, and attracted huge public attention. It still should have great expectations from fans.
"We need a healthier environment to develop soccer in China. It's hoped that this case offers Chinese soccer a chance to bounce back from this low, instead of being just another footnote to more decline."