Dazzling but empty stadiums a symbol of China’s fading football dream

Dazzling but empty stadiums a symbol of China’s fading football dream

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Dazzling but empty stadiums a symbol of China’s fading football dream

Credits: AFP

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Experts warn that gleaming football stadiums built for the Asian Cup could become “white elephants” once China withdraws as hosts, putting President Xi Jinping’s World Cup hopes even more out of reach.

For the Asian Cup next summer, ten Chinese towns have spent billions of dollars to build eight new stadiums and rehabilitate two others.

China, meanwhile, pulled out of hosting the competition last weekend, citing its strict zero-Covid policy and the fact that its largest metropolis, Shanghai, is only now hesitantly emerging from a weeks-long lockdown.

“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.”

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Around the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, billboards proudly promoting the Asian Cup can still be seen.

According to official figures, the historic stadium was demolished and is being rebuilt at a cost of $484 million to taxpayers.

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

The Chinese Super League is gearing up for the 2019 season, which will very certainly be held at closed neutral venues due to Covid.

On the field, the national team failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup for the second time, and there has been a recent exodus of prominent foreign players and coaches.

 

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‘White elephants’

China’s pandemic-stricken economy, the world’s second-largest, has turned to big-ticket infrastructure projects to boost growth, and officials believe that erecting glamorous football stadiums was part of the plan.

Some, such as the futuristic 60,000-seater Egret Stadium in Xiamen’s seaside metropolis, are cropping up in cities without a top-tier team to call home.

Even if people are permitted back into stadiums, which appears to be a long way off, CSL teams will struggle to fill the majority 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.”

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The new stadiums will have infrastructure that will allow them to double as concert venues, but China’s severe Covid controls have strangled the live-entertainment business alongside football.

According to Chadwick, China is already having difficulty repurposing other major sporting arenas erected in recent years.

“When resources are scarce this is an incredibly wasteful and sub-optimal way of planning,” he said.

A dozen of the 18 teams expected to compete in the CSL this year are financed by real estate firms.

However, due to the slowing economy, many developers are having difficulty repaying their debts.

According to Chinese media outlet Caixin, the local government took away a $1.86 billion stadium development project from struggling developer Evergrande, which owns former Asian champions Guangzhou FC.

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The Guangzhou Evergrande stadium was supposed to have a capacity of 100,000 people and a distinctive lotus flower-shaped design, but the bold proposal was cut back in the end.

“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.”

 

Damaged reputation

President Xi’s hopes of transforming China into a football powerhouse capable of staging and perhaps winning a men’s World Cup have waned dramatically in recent years.

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Its strict Covid strategy has also stifled the country’s ambitions to become a global sporting hub, at least in the short term.

Since Covid surfaced in Wuhan in late 2019, China has canceled or postponed practically all international sports events, with the exception of this year’s Winter Olympics, which were hosted in a virus-free Beijing “bubble” in February.

The Asian Games, which were scheduled to take place in Hangzhou in September, were postponed earlier this month. It is unknown when China will host an expanded football Club World Cup, which was slated to take place last year.

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

Xi’s big plan to reform football on and off the field has been put on hold due to economic difficulties, according to Bo Li, a professor of sports administration at Miami University.

“Hosting a World Cup is not the current leader’s top priority (anymore),” he added.

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