The burden of the Chinese football dream

Football stadiums built for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup football tournament could turn into a burden after China relinquishes its host status.

Ten cities across China have spent billions of dollars building eight new stadiums and renovating two others for the 2023 Asian Cup.

But in the context that China persists with its “No Covid” strategy and its largest city, Shanghai, has just “opened” after a long period of lockdown due to the epidemic, the country announced last week. will no longer hold the tournament.

The Workers Stadium in Beijing appears to be nearing completion after a major renovation.  Photo: AFP.

Workers Stadium in Beijing during renovations on May 18. Image: AFP.

“The Asian Cup is simply a stepping stone for China towards its dream of hosting the World Cup,” said Simon Chadwick, director of the Eurasian Sports Industry Center at Emlyon Business School, based in France. “However, China’s football ambitions seem to be cooling off.”

Billboards advertising the Asian Cup can still be seen around the Workers’ Stadium in central Beijing, which has been demolished for reconstruction. The cost to renovate this stadium is about 484 million USD.

“Whether we hold the Asian Cup or not, we will still complete the stadium as planned,” said a worker here.

It is not clear how many football matches will take place here in the near future, nor when it may open. The Chinese Premier League is waiting for the start of the new season and will almost certainly have to take place without spectators because of Covid-19.

On the pitch, the Chinese national team once again failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup and many foreign players and coaches have left the country in recent seasons.

China has focused on developing high-value infrastructure projects to boost its economy hit by the pandemic, and officials say building epic stadiums is part of the plan. this.

Some stadiums, like the 60,000-seat Bai Yi Stadium in the coastal city of Xiamen, are taking shape, but the city doesn’t even have a first-class football team to make it home.

Pudong Stadium is under construction on the outskirts of Shanghai, China.  Photo: AFP.

Pudong Stadium is under construction on the outskirts of Shanghai, China. Image: AFP.

And even if spectators are allowed to return to the stadium, the teams competing in the Chinese Premier League will still struggle to entice fans to fill the stands.

“Stadiums of this type in relatively small cities like Xiamen or in other localities where stadiums already exist like Xi’an have the potential to become a ‘white elephant’ project,” said William Bi, investor. sports consultant in Beijing, comment.

“White Elephant” is a term for an investment whose value or usefulness is disproportionate to the cost of building and maintaining it. “When the economy is down, there isn’t much of a chance to spend money building a football club worthy of a giant stadium,” Bi said.

The investors have added many works and facilities so that the new stadiums can also be used as venues for music performances. However, China’s strict anti-Covid-19 restrictions are making it impossible for the show industry to function.

According to Chadwick, China is also struggling in its efforts to reuse other major sports venues built in recent years. “When resources are scarce, these are extremely wasteful and suboptimal plans,” he said.

More than 10 of the 18 teams competing in the Chinese Premier League this year are sponsored by real estate companies. However, the slowing economy has left many real estate developers struggling.

The local government has withdrawn the $1.86 billion stadium construction project from developer Evergrande, which is embroiled in a debt scandal. Evergrande is also the company that owns the Asian championship team Guangzhou FC.

According to the original construction plan, Guangzhou Evergrande Stadium has a capacity of 100,000 people with a striking lotus-shaped design.

“The recent turbulent times seem to have severed the link between football and the real estate development industry, raising questions about the future of Chinese football,” Chadwick said.

The ambition to turn China into a football powerhouse, even win the World Cup, seems to have faded over the years. Beijing’s plan to become a global sports center is also difficult to come true, at least in the short term, because of the tough anti-epidemic strategy pursued by the government.

With the exception of the Winter Olympics, held in a “isolation bubble” in Beijing in February, China has canceled or postponed most international sporting events since the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan at the end of the year. 2019.

Earlier this month, China announced the postponement of the Asian Games, which were scheduled to be held in September in Hangzhou. It remains unclear when China will host the Open Club World Cup, which was set to take place last year.

People line up for a Covid-19 test in front of a building with a billboard advertising the Asia Cup in Beijing.  Photo: AFP.

People line up for a Covid-19 test in front of a building with a billboard advertising the Asian Cup in Beijing on May 14. Image: AFP.

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

China’s master plan to transform football both on and off the field has been pushed back amid economic difficulties, said Bo Li, a professor of sports management at the University of Miami, USA. let me know. “Hosting the World Cup is no longer a priority for China,” he added.

Vu Hoang (Theo AFP)

Leave a Comment