In 2011, a year before assuming the presidency, Xi Jinping spoke of his three wishes for a football match to qualify for a World Cup (the 2002 participation remains the only one), host the tournament, and one day lift the trophy. The first still seems a long way off, which means the third is further away. The second seemed like a safer bet. Sometime in the 2030s, Beijing was supposed to compete and host the sport's biggest event. After recent events, this seems a bit less confident.
There should be plenty of football in China in the next 12 months, but the country's zero Covid policy, which has put the two biggest cities, Shanghai and Beijing, under strict lockdown measures, has ended that. July's East Asian Championships against regional rivals Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong moved to Japan in April. Shortly after, the 2022 Asian Games, the continent's Olympics that offer soccer gold to U-23 teams, were postponed. The most damaging event took place last month when China officially withdrew from the 2023 Asian Cup.
Hosting that 24-team continental tournament was supposed to be a big step towards hosting the world cup, with new stadiums being built across the country. Now an angry Asian Football Confederation is scrambling to find a replacement. Chinese Football Association officials fear that FIFA will take notice. It is the latest blow that the pandemic has dealt football in the most populous country in the world.
The certainly not unexpected news that the Asian Cup was going elsewhere came ten years and three days after Marcello Lippi was appointed head coach of Guangzhou Evergrande. This club started the massive Chinese Super League spending spree, which peaked in the winter of 2016-17 when they spent more money than anyone else. The Tigres del Sur won eight league titles and two continental titles from 2011 to 2019. In the latter, much of the spending had stagnated, and the arrival of Covid turned a sudden stop into an accident.
Evergrande was the largest in a series of property developers to become involved with Chinese Super League clubs. When the property market crashed, there was always a significant impact on football. The strict salary caps now in place - an acknowledgment that clubs have not received much value from importing famous foreign talent - would never affect Evergrande's $300bn debts.
Other owners also discounted. The 2021 Chinese Super League began with defending champions Jiangsu FC shutting down as Suning, who owns Internazionale, looked to cut costs. It ended with Chongqing Liangjiang manager Chang Woe-long fighting back the tears as he spoke about the club's difficulties paying players. Fighting continued, and Chongqing finally surrendered on May 24.