Zero COVID policy crushes China soccer dreams


Chinas dazzling stadiums without life and content Image: Hangzhou Buro of Culture

Gleaming football stadiums built for the Asian Cup may turn into “white elephants” after China withdrew as hosts, experts say, with President Xi Jinping’s World Cup dreams more remote than ever.

The ‘France24’ stated that 10 Cities across China have sunk billions of dollars to build eight new stadiums and renovate two others for the Asian Cup next Summer.

But with the country sticking to its rigid zero-COVID policy and its biggest City, Shanghai, only just now tentatively emerging from a weeks-long lockdown, China pulled out of staging the competition recently.

The 2023 AFC Asian Cup will be the 18th edition of the AFC Asian Cup, the quadrennial international men’s football championship of Asia organized by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). It will be held from June 16th to July 16th, 2023. The tournament will involve 24 national teams after its expansion of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, including that of the host nation. Qatar is the defending champions.

The tournament was originally scheduled to be held in China. However, on May 14th, 2022, the AFC announced that China would not be able to host the tournament due to the circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s zero-COVID policy. The new host country is yet to be decided.

Simon Chadwick, Director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry at Emlyon Business School (business school in Écully, France) said, “The Asian Cup was simply the prelude to a men’s World Cup bid. But China’s football ambitions appear to be in tatters.”

The ‘France24’ further stated that billboards proudly announcing the Asian Cup can still be seen around the 65,094-capacity Workers’ Stadium in the heart of Beijing.

The historic stadium was torn down and is being rebuilt, the drastic revamp costing taxpayers $484 million, per official data.

Said a construction worker, “With or without the Asian Cup we plan to finish the stadium as planned.”

Quite when football of any description takes place there is unclear.

The Chinese Super League is waiting to start the new season and when it does looks certain to take place at closed neutral venues because of COVID-19 which is still casting its long shadow in China.

On the pitch the national side again failed to reach this year’s World Cup and there has been an exodus of top foreign players and coaches in recent seasons.

‘White elephants’

China has turned to big-ticket infrastructure projects to juice up its pandemic-stricken economy, the world’s second-largest, and officials say that building glitzy football stadiums was part of that plan.

Some, like the futuristic 60,000-seater Egret Stadium in the coastal City of Xiamen, are springing up in Cities which do not have a top-tier team to call the venue home.

And even when crowds are allowed back into stadiums – which looks a long way off – CSL teams will struggle to muster enough fans to fill most of them.

Stated Beijing-based sports consultant William Bi, “The ones in relatively smaller Cities like Xiamen or in Cities where there are (existing) stadiums like Xi’an… are more liable to be white elephants. As the economy is backsliding there is little chance for splashing money to build a club that deserves a giant stadium.”

Developers have added facilities that will allow the new stadiums to double up as concert venues, but China’s strict COVID restrictions have killed the live-entertainment industry along with football.

China is already struggling to reuse other major sporting venues built in recent years, Chadwick said – “When resources are scarce this is an incredibly wasteful and sub-optimal way of planning.”

About a dozen of the 18 teams supposed to be playing in the CSL this year are backed by real estate companies.

But a cooling economy has left many developers scrambling to repay loans.

The local Government took away a $1.86 billion stadium construction project from floundering developer Evergrande, which owns former Asian champions Guangzhou F.C.

The Guangzhou Evergrande stadium was initially planned to have a capacity of 100,000 and a striking lotus flower-shaped design, although the end product will see the bold idea somewhat scaled back.

Added Bi, “Investment in football was politically expedient on the part of developers as it helped cultivate strong relationships with the State. What this recent turbulent period appears to have done… is to cut the cord between football and property development, raising questions about the future of Chinese football.”

Damaged reputation

Football-fan President Xi’s (read President of China Xi Jinping) dreams of turning the nation into a powerhouse of the sport capable of staging and even winning a men’s World Cup have faded markedly over the last few years.

The country’s ambitions to be a global sporting hub have also been crushed, at least in the short term, by its hardline COVID strategy.

With the exception of this year’s Winter Olympics, held in a virus-secure Beijing “bubble” in February, China has canceled or postponed almost all international sports events since COVID emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

The Asian Games, due to be staged in September in Hangzhou, were postponed last month. It is unclear when China will host an expanded football Club World Cup – it was supposed to be last year.

The sports consultant Bi said, “China’s reputation as a reliable sporting event host has been damaged.”

Said Bo Li, Professor of Sports Management at Miami University, “Xi’s masterplan to transform football on and off the pitch has now been relegated to the back burner amid economic woes. Hosting a World Cup is not the current leader’s top priority (anymore).”

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