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

by Poornima Weerasekara

Gleaming football stadiums built for the Asian Cup could turn into ‘white elephants’ after China withdraws as host, experts say, with President Xi Jinping’s World Cup dreams more distant than never.

Ten cities across China have spent billions of dollars building eight new stadiums and renovating two more for the Asian Cup next summer.

This photo taken on May 18, 2022 shows a general view of the construction site of the Workers’ Stadium, the planned venue for the 2023 Asian Cup, in Beijing. Photo: Jade Gao/AFP.

But as the country sticks to its rigid zero-Covid policy and its largest city, Shanghai, has only just tentatively emerged from a week-long lockdown, China has pulled out of the organization of the competition last weekend.

“The Asian Cup was just the prelude to a men’s World Cup bid,” said Simon Chadwick, director of the Center for the Eurasian Sports Industry at Emlyon Business School.

“But China’s football ambitions appear to be in tatters.”

Billboards proudly advertising the Asian Cup are still visible around the Workers’ Stadium in the heart of Beijing.

The historic stadium was demolished and is being rebuilt, with the drastic overhaul costing taxpayers $484 million, according to official data.

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

Quite when football of any description takes place it is not clear.

The Chinese Super League is waiting to start the new season and when it looks certain to take place at neutral venues closed due to Covid.

Asian Cup 2023. Photo: Asian Cup 2023.

On the pitch, the national team again failed to reach this year’s World Cup and there has been an exodus of top foreign players and coaches in recent seasons.

“White Elephants”

China turned to expensive infrastructure projects to revive its pandemic-stricken economy, the world’s second largest, and officials say building glitzy football stadiums was part of that plan.

Some, like the futuristic 60,000-seat Egret Stadium in the coastal city of Xiamen, are popping up in cities that don’t have a top team to call home.

And even when crowds are allowed back into stadiums – which seems a long way off – CSL teams will struggle to muster enough fans to fill most of them.

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

“As the economy shrinks, there is little chance of spending money to build a club that deserves a giant stadium.”

Developers have added facilities that will allow new stadiums to double as concert halls, but strict Covid restrictions in China have killed the live football entertainment industry.

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 method of planning,” he said.

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

But a slowing economy has left many developers scrambling to repay their loans.

The local government withdrew a $1.86 billion stadium construction project from struggling developer Evergrande, which owns former Asian champions Guangzhou FC, Chinese media group Caixin reported in March.

Guangzhou Evergrande Stadium was originally planned to have a 100,000 capacity and a striking lotus flower design, although the final product will see the bold idea scaled back somewhat.

“The investment in football was politically expedient on the part of the developers as it helped cultivate strong relationships with the state,” Chadwick said.

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

Tainted reputation

Football-loving President Xi’s dreams of transforming the nation into a sporting powerhouse capable of hosting and even winning a men’s World Cup have dimmed considerably in recent years.

The country’s ambitions to be a global sports hub have also been dashed, at least in the short term, by its hardline Covid strategy.

With the exception of this year’s Winter Olympics, which were held in a virus-safe Beijing ‘bubble’ in February, China has canceled or postponed nearly every international sporting event since the outbreak of Covid. in Wuhan at the end of 2019.

The Asian Games, which were to take place in September in Hangzhou, have been postponed to the beginning of the month. It’s unclear when China will host an expanded FIFA Club World Cup – it was supposed to be last year.

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

Xi’s master plan to transform football on and off the pitch has now taken a back seat amid economic hardship, said Bo Li, a sports management professor at the University of Miami.

“Organizing a World Cup is not (no longer) the current leader’s top priority,” he added.

James V. Hayes