Chinese football fans expressed fury Saturday over reports that the man once tipped to head the sport's top body in Asia may have been "sacrificed" by Beijing in its drive to dominate the Olympics.
China's Zhang Jilong, the current caretaker chief of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and presumed next president, surprisingly pulled out of upcoming leadership elections due in early May, a source told AFP on Thursday.
"It was not a decision that I could make," Titan Sports quoted the 61-year-old as saying on Friday.
The Chinese newspaper said the move could have been instructed by China's sport governing body in a bid to curry favour with Olympic chiefs in Asia who support alternative candidates for the position.
China needs support from the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) to preserve the Olympic status of its dominant sports, such as badminton and table tennis, the paper said.
Chinese news website Sina.com predicted that the Chinese Football Association would support a candidate who is openly backed by OCA president Sheikh Fahad Al-Sabah.
"The act of sacrificing football and sacrificing an opportunity for Zhang" in exchange for "a deal" with OCA "reflects that Chinese sports authorities still see winning medals as the number one priority", said Yan Qiang, vice-president of Titan Media group which publishes Titan Sports.
"Sport appears to have no relationship with what the public wants in China, as football has been treated like a discarded toy," he added on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
Football fans across China backed the comments on Saturday, with thousands offering support for Zhang and for the development of Chinese football.
"Sport in this country is just a mechanism for officials to win benefits with each other. It has no connection with the people at all," said one Chinese web user.
Others lamented how Beijing considered sport to be "just about gold medals" and that Chinese football was "once again, a joke".
The sport is still reeling in China following years of match-fixing and poor results from the national team.
Zhang, who will stay on in his role as senior AFC vice president, was seen as a steadying hand when he was elevated to caretaker leader in bewildering circumstances in 2011.
Zhang, who was the director of China's sports department in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, took the reins from Mohamed bin Hammam who was accused of vote-buying during FIFA presidential polls and banned from football.
Speaking to AFP soon after his appointment, Zhang said his priority was to "maintain stability, enhance unity, promote development, hand in hand together to manage the difficulties".
He also said he wanted to act against the damaging corruption and match-fixing scandals which have plagued Asian football. This month the AFC co-hosted an Interpol conference aimed at cracking down on rigged games.