New stadiums, loads of disillusioned Chinese football

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Brand new, modern… but almost useless? Stadiums built for the Asian Cup could become empty and become a burden for China after Chinese football’s abrupt withdrawal from the organization, which exacerbated its crisis.

Ten Chinese cities have spent billions of euros building eight new enclosures and renovating the other two for the event, which is scheduled for summer 2023. Most will be completed by the end of the year.

“The Asian Cup (…) was only the beginning of the candidacy for a World Cup organisation,” EM Lyon’s Eurasian Sports Center director told AFP Simon Chadwick.

“But it looks like China’s passion for football has been shattered,” he said.

In Beijing, large billboards promoting the Asian Cup still surround the main construction site of the Workers’ Stadium.

This historic enclosure was demolished to be rebuilt. Cost of facelift: 460 million Euros.

“With or without the Asian Cup, we will finish this stadium as we planned,” one worker told AFP.

Without the events, China has no other opportunity to bid for a major football competition in the next decade.

And Chinese football is in crisis.

Top players leave clubs as salaries drop. And teams are seeing bleeding from foreign stars and coaches fed up with the anti-Covid restrictions.

China has turned to building infrastructure such as football stadiums to support its economy affected by the epidemic.

However, some of these enclosures, such as the futuristic Egret Stadium (“Egret Stadium”) in the coastal city of Xiamen (east), were built in cities where there were no clubs most likely to use them.

– “White elephants” –

Stadiums located in “relatively small” or “already equipped” cities, such as many major Chinese cities, are “most likely to turn into white elephants”, said William Bi, a Beijing-based sports consultant. “And when the economy collapses, I’d be surprised if they spent millions of dollars building clubs that deserve a stadium this size.”

The term “white elephant” refers to infrastructure that has been built at great expense but is little used, making it a financial burden for local communities.

Most of the new stadiums are designed as complexes that can also host concerts. However, the anti-Covid restrictions have already dealt a serious blow to the entertainment industry.

This construction spree started when real estate agents started buying stocks in clubs.

A dozen of the 18 major league teams are now funded by real estate groups.

But the industry is currently in crisis and many developers are crippled by debt.

In Canton (south), the town hall seized the site of the stadium for 1.7 billion euros from the organizer with great difficulty in Evergrande, the owner of Guangzhou Evergrande (section 1).

The enclosure would initially be shaped like a lotus flower and house 100,000 people, but ambitions should be revised downward.

According to Simon Chadwick, “Investing in football was an effective way for supporters to gain political support”, as the state was very proactive in the development of football.

“But all this turbulence has apparently severed that link between football and the real estate industry. This raises questions about the future of Chinese football.”

– Damaged image –

President Xi Jinping’s dream of making his country a football “power” capable of organizing and even winning a World Cup has clearly faded in recent years.

The country of choice for sports competitions in recent years (F1, 2008 Summer Olympics, athletics, basketball world championships), China is also seeing its ambitions in this field questioned by the Covid strategy.

With the exception of the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, held in February-March in a health balloon, China has canceled or postponed nearly all international sporting events it would host since the start of the epidemic.

The Asian Games in Hangzhou (east) have been postponed. Uncertainty continues in the World Football Clubs Cup, which has not been officially canceled but will be held by the country in 2021.

“China has a reputation as a country you can trust to host a sporting event. But that reputation has been shaken,” said William Bi.

Judge Bo Li, a professor of sports management at the University of Miami (USA), said President Xi’s football passions were also pushed into the background behind economic concerns.

“Hosting a World Cup is no longer the main priority of Chinese leaders today,” he said.

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