SHANGHAI, China, Feb 27 – A proud football club near China’s border with North Korea has folded days before the new season because of Sh3.6bn ( $36mn) in unpaid taxes, angering its diehard fans and leaving players stranded.
The demise of second-tier Yanbian Funde, former national champions, underlines the precarious nature of Chinese football and the harsh financial realities that many teams face in the country.
They are the second Chinese team in as many months to implode following Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian, who reformed as Tianjin Tianhai after a scandal engulfed its corporate owner.
Yanbian drew comparisons with 2016 Premier League champions Leicester City after they emerged from the doldrums of China’s second division to challenge the CSL elite.
That year, newly promoted Yanbian finished ninth in the CSL, China’s top flight, despite the club’s striker Sun Jun calling them “the poorest soccer team in China”.
But Yanbian, nestled in the remote far northeast of China and closely tied to the area’s football-mad ethnic Korean community, were relegated in 2017.
And they were dissolved this week when majority shareholder Funde Holding Group pulled the plug following disagreements over who should pay a soaring 240 million yuan ($36 million) tax bill, Chinese media said.
Fans, powerless to save their club, are heartbroken and angry.
“I’m very disappointed and cannot calm down, I feel betrayed,” said Jin Bo, president of fan group YB Supporters, blaming conflict between Funde and local sports authorities, who were a minority shareholder.
“Our fans’ association will be dissolved later too because we lost our reason to exist and we will not support other teams,” said the 30-year-old, whose group has 80 members.
– ‘Left on the street’ –
Yanbian have a long history. They were formed in 1955, were champions of China a decade later and a founding member of the country’s first professional football league in 1994.
The club has a special place in Chinese football because of its close links to the area’s large ethnic Korean population.
The club was their pride and joy — a way to express their minority identity — and the team traditionally drew on players from the area.
“Yanbian Funde is a team harmoniously combined between Koreans and other ethnic groups and it is very important to football fans and local people,” said Jin, who supported the club most of his life.
Players and staff have likewise been left in limbo with League One, China’s second division, kicking off in the second week of March.
Yanbian will not be in the competition and media reports on Wednesday said the squad was unable to pay the bill for their hotel in South Korea, where they were training for the new season.
Curiously, the club were signing players even as matters unravelled behind the scenes.
Lorin Burba, who represents Argentine striker Agustin Torassa and Albanian defender Albi Alla, plans to lodge a protest with FIFA over the club’s “reckless behaviour”.
He called the treatment of 30-year-old Torassa “disturbing”.
“The player signed a pre-contract with Yanbian and afterwards terminated the employment relationship with his former club,” Burba, co-founder of BFM Bode Football Management, told AFP.
“Upon arriving in South Korea to sign the contract, Yanbian inexplicably retracted.
“My client has been left in the middle of the street for no apparent or just reason.”