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

Beijing (AFP) – Gleaming soccer stadiums built for the Asian Cup could turn into ‘white elephants’ after China pulls out as host, experts say, and President Xi Jinping’s World Cup dreams are further away than ever.

Ten cities across China have sunk billions of dollars to build eight new stadiums and renovate two more for next summer’s Asian Cup.

But with the country sticking to its strict zero-Covid policy and its largest city, Shanghai, just timidly emerging from a weeks-long lockdown, China withdrew from hosting the competition last weekend.

“The Asian Cup was just the start of a bid for a men’s world championship,” said Simon Chadwick, director of the Center for the Eurasian Sport Industry at Emlyon Business School.

“But China’s football aspirations 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 demolished and is being rebuilt, with the drastic transformation costing taxpayers $484 million, according to official figures.

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

It is unclear when football of any kind will take place there.

The Asian Cup is still proudly displayed at the workers' stadium in Beijing – but it's not taking place in China
The Asian Cup is still proudly displayed at the workers’ stadium in Beijing – but it’s not taking place in China JADE GAO AFP

The Chinese Super League is waiting to start the new season and when it does it will surely take place in closed neutral venues because of Covid.

On the pitch, the national team once again failed to reach this year’s World Cup, and recent seasons have seen an exodus of top foreign players and coaches.

– ‘White Elephants’ –

China has turned to large-scale infrastructure projects to boost its pandemic-hit economy, the second-largest in the world, and officials say building glittering soccer stadiums was part of that plan.

Some, like the futuristic 60,000-seat Egret Stadium in the coastal city of Xiamen, are emerging in cities that lack a world-class team to host the venue.

And even if spectators are allowed back into stadiums – which looks far away – CSL teams will struggle to garner enough fans to fill most of them.

Shanghai built Pudong Stadium on its outskirts for the Port of Shanghai in the CSL
Shanghai built Pudong Stadium on its outskirts for the Port of Shanghai in the CSL STR AFP

“Those in relatively smaller cities like Xiamen, or in cities that have (existing) stadiums like Xi’an, are more likely to be white elephants,” said Beijing-based sports consultant William Bi.

“With the economy in decline there is little chance of injecting money to build a club that deserves a huge stadium.”

Developers have added facilities allowing the new stadiums to serve as concert venues, but China’s tough Covid restrictions have killed the live entertainment industry along with football.

China is already struggling to reuse other major sports venues built in recent years, Chadwick said.

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

About a dozen of the 18 teams scheduled to play in the CSL this year are backed by real estate companies.

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

Chinese media group Caixin reported in March that the local government took away a $1.86 billion stadium construction project from faltering developer Evergrande, which owns former Asian champions Guangzhou FC.

The Guangzhou Evergrande Stadium was originally planned with a capacity of 100,000 and an eye-catching lotus flower-shaped design, although the final product will see the bold idea scaled back somewhat.

“Investments in football made political sense on the part of developers as they helped build strong ties with the state,” Chadwick said.

“What this recent turbulent period seems to have done…is to sever the link between football and property development, raising questions about the future of Chinese football.”

– Damaged reputation –

Football fan president Xi’s dreams of turning the nation into a sporting powerhouse capable of hosting and even winning a men’s World Cup have faded markedly in recent years.

The country’s ambitions to become a global sports hub have also been dashed, at least in the short term, by its no-compromise Covid strategy.

With the exception of this year’s Winter Olympics, which took place in a virus-safe “bubble” in Beijing in February, China has canceled or postponed nearly all international sporting events since Covid emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

People undergo a Covid-19 coronavirus test in front of a building with an advertising board for the Asian Cup in Beijing
People undergo a Covid-19 coronavirus test in front of a building with an advertising board for the Asian Cup in Beijing JADE GAO AFP

The Asian Games, scheduled to be held in Hangzhou in September, were postponed earlier this month. It’s unclear when China will host an expanded Soccer Club World Cup – it was supposed to be last year.

“China’s reputation as a reliable host of sporting events is damaged,” said sports adviser Bi.

Xi’s master plan to transform football on and off the field has now been sidelined amid economic woes, said Bo Li, a professor of sports management at Miami University.

“Hosting a World Cup is not (anymore) a top priority for the current league leaders,” he added.

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