China’s hosting of the 2021 Club World Cup and the 2023 Asian Cup were supposed to herald the coming of age of China as a soccer superpower. With the Chinese Super League (CSL) firmly established as a continental force, star players from around the world starring for some of the wealthiest clubs in world soccer, coached by some of the worlds finest tacticians, China was firmly on the road to building a system that it hoped would finally challenge the Western and South American superpowers and deliver another sporting accolade that the people of China could bask in. Then came COVID-19.
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept around the world in early 2020, the sporting world was hugely impacted the world over, with leagues suspended and some even cancelled altogether. Major tournaments such as Euro 2020 were postponed and competitions such as the English Premier League were forced to finish behind closed doors. However, with China pursuing a zero COVID policy, the impact has been far more long lasting.
While leagues the world over have returned to a degree of normality with fans back in attendance, China is still operating in bio secure bubbles meaning games are played out in largely empty stadiums. One of China’s largest cities, Shanghai, is still under lockdown and the financial downturn in China which had begun prior to COVID-19 has only been exacerbated further. Construction giants such as Guangzhou and retailers Suning Group poured millions into clubs both domestically and abroad, with Suning owning Italian giants Inter Milan as well as 2020 CSL Champions Jiangsu, which folded mere months after winning the title.
A decade ago, the arrival of Marcello Lippi as head coach of Guangzhou Evergrande heralded the start of the Chinese revolution, and within 18 months the Italian had led the club to the Asian Champions League title. More talent from Europe headed East, with fellow World Cup winner and former Chelsea coach Luiz Felipe Scolari following in Lippi’s footsteps.
The power and appeal of China was perhaps best evidenced by Brazilian Oscar leaving Chelsea FC, who themselves were not averse to paying riches to players to secure the best, leaving the bright lights of the Premier League to head to Shanghai, showing that even the English Premier League would struggle to compete with China’s riches.
However, the 2021 Club World Cup never took place in China, instead handed over to the United Arab Emirates with little to no fanfare and no promise of a glorious return. The rights to the Asian Cup have been handed back to the Asian Football Confederation with new hosts being sought as China continues to try and eradicate COVID. Government pressure has forced Chinese investment in soccer to be scaled way back, as evidenced both abroad and at home.
Investments in European clubs by Chinese groups has led to significant pressure to sell players, as seen in Italy at Inter Milan and will likely take place at Fosun owned Wolverhampton Wanderers this summer in the EPL, with rumours abound the sales will be necessary in order to balance the books. In China, top players are no longer lured in by the huge wages on offer and the restrictions on fans make conditions less than appealing.
China has used sport in the past decade as a driver in its engagement with the West, from hosting multiple Olympics to huge sponsorship deals between the likes of the IOC and FIFA with brands such as Wanda and Alibaba. With the focus from Chinese leadership very much back on domestic concerns, it is unlikely that Xi Jinping’s dream of hosting the World Cup will be realised in his lifetime.
The fact that China has passed up opportunities to host tournaments will likely deteriorate trust in the regime from tournament organizers and mean that the next time China hosts a major sporting event could be decades away.