China’s World Cup dream more distant after Covid leaves football in a mess

Show caption China fans make their presence known during a World Cup qualifying match in Japan in January, but the team failed to reach Qatar 2022. Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters China China’s World Cup dream more distant after Covid leaves football in a mess Delayed Super League is due to start on Friday but the football calendar has been torn apart by the impact of coronavirus John Duerden Thu 2 Jun 2022 08.00 BST Share on Facebook

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In 2011, a year before he became president, Xi Jinping talked of his three wishes for Chinese football: to qualify for a World Cup (the 2002 appearance is still the only one), to host the tournament and to someday lift the trophy. The first is still looking quite far away which means the third is even further. The second seemed to be a safer bet. It was assumed that at some point in the 2030s, Beijing would bid for, and be given, sport’s biggest event. After recent events, that is looking a little less certain.

There should have been a lot of football taking place in China over the next 12 months but the country’s zero-Covid policy, which has seen the two biggest cities, Shanghai and Beijing, put under strict lockdown, has put paid to all that. July’s East Asian Championships against regional rivals Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong was switched to Japan in April. Soon after, the 2022 Asian Games, the continent’s Olympics which offer football gold for under-23 teams, was postponed. In football terms, the most damaging development took place last month as China officially gave up the 2023 Asian Cup.

Hosting that 24-team continental tournament was supposed to be a major step towards staging the global one, with new stadiums built around the country. Now an annoyed Asian Football Confederation is scrambling around to try to find a replacement. Officials in the Chinese Football Association fear that Fifa will be taking note. It is the latest blow the pandemic has dealt football in the world’s most populous country.

The – admittedly not unexpected – news the Asian Cup was heading elsewhere came 10 years and three days after Marcello Lippi was appointed head coach of Guangzhou Evergrande, the club who had started the massive wave of spending in the Chinese Super League that peaked in the winter of 2016-17 when they splashed more cash than any other in the world. The Southern Tigers won eight league and two continental titles from 2011 to 2019. By the last one, much of the spending had stopped and the arrival of Covid turned a slowdown into a crash.

Evergrande was the biggest of a number of property developers that got involved with Chinese Super League clubs and when the bottom fell out of the real estate market there was always going to be a massive impact on football. The strict salary caps now in place, a recognition that clubs had not received much value in their importing of famous foreign talent, were never going to make much of a dent on Evergrande’s debts of $300bn.

Other owners also cut back. The 2021 Chinese Super League started with the defending champions Jiangsu FC ceasing operations as Suning, which also owns Internazionale, looked to reduce costs. It ended with Chang Woe-ryong, head coach of Chongqing Liangjiang, fighting back tears as he talked about the struggles the club have gone through trying to pay players. The struggles continued and Chongqing finally folded on 24 May.

Paulinho (right) was one of the star names at Guangzhou Evergrande but eventually had his contract cancelled last year due to pandemic-related complications. Photograph: AFP/Getty

In April the Cangzhou Mighty Lions defender Wang Zihao said that not receiving a salary for over a year had taken its toll. “I need to support my family, pay my mortgage, and now I’m borrowing money to live,” he said. “The Football Association asked us to reconcile in private first, and what you did is not to give money or freedom. Why can’t I get my hard-earned money back?” It is rare to see such sentiments in the public domain but the situation has been serious with some estimates saying that all but three or four top-tier clubs are struggling.

The Chinese Super League usually starts in February. This year was supposed to kick off in April. It is finally due to start on Friday. Players may now be sick and tired of not being paid but many had already had enough of seasons spent in secure bubbles and their routine of hotels, training grounds and stadiums. Most of the big-name foreign stars left as the spending stopped but there were those such as Paulinho who remained with their clubs until they were unable to get back into the country in 2021 and had their contracts cancelled. It is still a problem and the former Chelsea midfielder Oscar, probably the biggest name remaining, has, as yet, been unable to return for this campaign.

Given such problems at home, continental club success is out of the question. Two of China’s four representatives withdrew from this year’s Asian Champions League amid concerns about getting back home in time for the domestic kick-off. Such worries led the other two to send youth teams and, in their combined 12 games in April, Guangzhou and the champions Shandong scored two and conceded 48.

The national team, at least, have offered some major consolation but that was down to the women winning the Asian Cup in February. The men’s attempt to reach the World Cup failed dismally with Team Dragon winning one of 10 in the final stages of qualification for the 2022 World Cup, finishing above only Vietnam and eight points behind Oman. To make matters worse, the already struggling domestic league was postponed for four months to give the national team the best chance of success.

It’s all a mess. Covid-19 and the response to it are not responsible for all the problems in Chinese football but have done considerable damage. That nightmare is going to stop at some point but it is no longer inevitable that the World Cup is coming to China any time soon.