by Poornima Weerasekara
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.
Ten 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 last weekend.
“The Asian Cup was simply the prelude to a men’s World Cup bid,” Simon Chadwick, director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry at Emlyon Business School, said.
“But China’s football ambitions appear to be in tatters.”
Billboards proudly announcing the Asian Cup can still be seen around the Workers’ Stadium in the heart of Beijing.
The historic stadium was torn down and is being rebuilt, the drastic revamp costing taxpayers US$484 million, per official data.
“With or without the Asian Cup we plan to finish the stadium as planned,” a construction worker said.
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.
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.
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.
“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,” Beijing-based sports consultant William Bi said.
“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 the football.
China is already struggling to re-use 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,” he said.
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 US$1.86 billion stadium construction project from floundering developer Evergrande, which owns former Asian champions Guangzhou FC, Chinese media group Caixin reported in March.
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.
“Investment in football was politically expedient on the part of developers as it helped cultivate strong relationships with the state,” Chadwick said.
“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.”
Football-fan president Xi’s 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 cancelled 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 earlier this month. It is unclear when China will host an expanded football Club World Cup — it was supposed to be last year.
“China’s reputation as a reliable sporting event host has been damaged,” the sports consultant Bi said.
Xi’s master plan to transform football on and off the pitch has now been relegated to the back burner amid economic woes, Bo Li, professor of sports management at Miami University, said.
“Hosting a World Cup is not the current leader’s top priority (anymore),” he added.
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