COVID Concerns Prompt China to Abandon Role as AFC Cup Host

On Saturday, China officially withdrew from its role as the host of the 2023 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup. The quadrennial event, which brings together 24 national soccer teams from across Asia, was originally scheduled to take place in ten Chinese cities during June and July of 2023. Citing the ongoing pandemic and the difficulty of running the games in a fully open manner, the Chinese organizing committee decided to pull the plug more than a year in advance, leading many in China to wonder whether long lockdowns could drag on into next year. An AFC press release described China’s withdrawal announcement:

Following extensive discussions with the Chinese Football Association (CFA), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has been officially informed by the CFA that it would not be able to host the AFC Asian Cup 2023™.

[…] The AFC acknowledges the exceptional circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the relinquishment by China PR of its hosting rights.

[…] The AFC appreciates that China PR, the CFA and the AFC Asian Cup China 2023™️ LOC have made this very difficult but necessary decision in the collective interests of the AFC Asian Cup 2023™️, which has also provided the AFC the required time to assess the situation regarding the hosting of the AFC Asian Cup 2023™️. [Source]

China, which previously hosted the tournament in 2004, had invested significantly in its bid to host the 2023 edition. After winning the bid in 2019, China spent billions of dollars to build and renovate ten soccer stadiums that are now no longer needed for the 2023 tournament. Manya Koetse of What’s On Weibo described these stadiums and translated a Weibo post that tallied the staggering cost of their construction:

  1. Xiamen Bailu Stadium: costs 3.5 billion [$515.5 million]. 
  2. Qingdao Youth Football Stadium: costs 3.2 billion [$470 million]. 
  3. Chongqing Longxing Stadium: costs 2.7 billion [$397.7 million]. 
  4. Xi’an International Football Center: costs 2.395 billion [$352.7 million].
  5. Dalian Suoyuwan Football Stadium: costs 1.88 billion [$277 million]. 
  6. Chengdu Phoenix Hill Stadium: costs 1.865 billion [$274.7 million]. 
  7. SAIC Motor Pudong Arena: costs 1.807 billion [$266 million].
  8. Suzhou Kunshan Football Stadium: costs 1.6 billion [$235.6 million]. 
  9. Tianjin Binhai Football Stadium: the renovation cost 320 million [$47 million]. 
  10. New Beijing Gongti Stadium: renovation cost 280 million [$41.2 million]. [Source]

China’s decision to pull out of hosting the Cup after such heavy investment demonstrates the government’s deep level of concern about the country’s COVID situation. One Weibo user commented: “You are canceling something that’s happening next year? Are they planning to turn the soccer pitches into makeshift hospitals?” CDT has collected and translated comments from some other Weibo users reacting to China withdrawing as AFC host nation:

三水告气: I think this is a wise move.

老乡开门哪1: If you’re going to be disgraced [by your team losing], might as well do it elsewhere, rather than on your home turf. Is that what this is about?

如若真我82910: Better to save the money. How much does China spend all year round hiring foreign coaches and training abroad? It can’t beat Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, or Thailand. What standing does it have to hold such a major competition? It’s like inviting people over to your house to watch you be humiliated.

Jie空中巴比伦: How about they save the money, and put it toward improving elder care and pensions instead? They act like they’ve got so much cash they don’t know where to spend it.

利物浦是冠军a:  How is this profitable? Were all those stadiums refurbished for nothing? [Chinese]

The AFC Cup is not the only soccer event in China to have been impacted by COVID. China was set to host July’s East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) Championships, but has since withdrawn from hosting the competition, citing concerns about the pandemic. The EAFF events will now be hosted by Japan. (As punishment for the poor performance of the senior men’s team during its abysmal 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, China will be represented by its under-23 side.) In April, Chinese Super League (CSL) team Shanghai Port pulled out of the Asian Champions League due to the city’s COVID lockdown restrictions. And while the CSL is scheduled to resume in June, it has still not been given an official start date and will likely run under a “closed loop” system, similar to the Beijing Winter Olympics, that requires teams to spend weeks of preseason in quarantine hotels. At Reuters, Michael Church described how all of these setbacks paint a bleak and uncertain future for Chinese soccer

The grinding impact of the global health crisis and China’s pursuit of a zero-COVID strategy, coupled with increasing difficulties within the business sector that bankrolled many of the country’s clubs, has left the game in turmoil.

“The gloss has come off China’s sporting ecosystem,” Mark Dreyer of China Sports Insider told Reuters.

“Who would trust China with a World Cup bid given everything we’ve seen in the last two years from the pandemic?

“In football terms, we’ve basically seen the full boom and bust.”

[…] “It used to be a given that [Xi Jinping] would live to see China host a World Cup, but I now think it’s only 50-50.” [Source]

This uncertainty extends to other parts of China’s sports industry, as the pandemic has taken a toll on many other sporting events, as well. The Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games, set to be held in September, have been postponed. The Asian Youth Games, which were to be held in Shantou in December after being postponed in 2021, have been canceled. Similarly, the Summer World University Games, slated to begin in June after being postponed in 2021, have been further postponed to 2023. The Chinese Formula 1 Grand Prix, which has not been held since 2019, and two Diamond League meetings in Shanghai and Shenzhen were all canceled because of the pandemic. Absent from the Chinese sporting calendar—although not due to the pandemic—are events from the Women’s Tennis Association, which is continuing a boycott of China over its treatment of tennis star Peng Shuai, who was censored and forcibly disappeared last November after describing a sexual assault by former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. 

Translation by Cindy Carter.


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