The once certainty that China would become a major player in football increasingly seems like a distant dream, a decade after the flood of Chinese money made ripples in the global football market.
The decision to give up the rights to next year’s Asian Cup finals, made by China last weekend citing uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, has left Chinese football with an uncertain future.
Hosting the quadrennial continental championship in nine sparkling new arenas and a remodeled stadium should be a stepping stone to realizing President Xi Jinping’s ambitions to host the World Cup.
That dream now seems further away than ever.
The nagging effects of the global health crisis and China’s push for a zero-COVID strategy, coupled with mounting difficulties in the corporate sector that funds many of the country’s clubs, have sent the game into turmoil.
“The luster of China’s sporting ecosystem has faded,” China Sports Insider’s Mark Dreyer told Reuters.
“With everything we’ve seen of the pandemic over the last two years, who would trust China with a World Cup bid?
“In terms of football, we’ve basically seen full boom and bust.”
The current climate is a far cry from the day 10 years ago on Tuesday when Guangzhou Evergrande unveiled world champion Marcello Lippi as the new head coach with an annual salary of 10 million euros ($10.44 million).
The Italian’s arrival ushered in a new era for Chinese football, fueled largely by money from ambitious real estate developers determined to make Xi’s dream come true.
Within 18 months of his arrival, Lippi had guided Guangzhou to the Asian Champions League title. Two years later, another World Cup winner, Luiz Felipe Scolari, repeated the feat.
Aside from the perennially weak national team, football in China was booming and sums spent on players and coaches from around the world escalated as the Chinese Super League (CSL) flourished.
Oscar swapped Chelsea for Shanghai and a salary of just under half a million dollars a week in 2016, following in the footsteps of fellow Brazilian Hulk, who moved from St. Petersburg for a fee of around $50 million.
Meanwhile, the country’s entrepreneurs have flocked to Europe to import expertise into China’s burgeoning football industry. Soon Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and Inter Milan were under Chinese ownership.
The governing bodies were courted. FIFA partnered with Wanda Sports and Alibaba, owned by Jack Ma, pledged to sponsor the expanded Club World Cup on its planned relaunch in China in 2021.
A bid to host the 2030 or 2034 World Cup was expected and the rights to the 2023 Asian Cup were secured at the 2019 Asian Football Confederation Extraordinary Congress in Paris.
Some changes were already in the air before COVID-19 emerged in late 2019, but the ensuing global pandemic sent the game into a tailspin.
The 2021 Club World Cup has been outsourced to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) without expansion and now the rights to the Asian Cup have been returned, making China’s hopes of hosting the World Cup seem little more than a COVID-19 fever dream.
In club play, the decline has been just as steep, with Jiangsu FC, owned by Inter Milan owners Suning Group, giving up a few months after winning the 2020 CSL title.
Government pressure on heavily indebted developers has seen funding cut for numerous clubs, including Guangzhou, while the country’s push for a zero-COVID strategy has turned the CSL into a shell of its former selves.
With significantly lower salary offers and the bleak prospect of playing in fan-free biosecure bubbles, few remain of the high-profile players who once flocked to the league.
The 19th CSL season is scheduled to start next month, but the exact start date is still uncertain.
“Xi Jinping is known to be a football fan, but football is going to be so low on his priority list right now,” said Dreyer, author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best.
“It used to be a given that he would see a World Cup in China, but now I think it’s just 50-50.”