After three years of isolation and financial struggles in Chinese soccer, the country is reopening its borders and economy to the outside world. With it, frustrated fans, financially challenged clubs and unpaid players in the Chinese Super League might receive some long-awaited good news.
The 2022 season was unrecognizable from the 2019 edition, the last before COVID-19 hit. Then the league had an average attendance of over 24,000, the highest in Asia, and a number of big-name foreign imports.
From 2020 onwards, Beijing’s “zero-COVID” policy, designed to stamp out the virus, meant that teams mostly played in empty stadiums at centralized venues. Players were stuck in bio-secure bubbles for months on end and international stars, unable to enter the country, were released from contracts.
It also meant little ticket, broadcast or sponsorship revenue for clubs. In 2021, defending champion Jiangsu FC folded and several other clubs have struggled to pay players.
Opening up the country may not mean a return to the carefree spending of the previous decade, but it is a prerequisite to starting the journey back to pre-pandemic levels. It is reported that clubs will play home and away games in the 2023 season.
“It almost feels like there has been no league in the past three years with delays, months without games and strange schedules,” Shanghai Shenhua supporter Wang Yi told The Associated Press. “Some fans have lost interest, but I think that will change when we can all get together at the stadium again.”
Due to the government’s strict policies, foreign teams were unable to enter the country, forcing China to play 2022 World Cup qualifiers in neutral venues. It finished next to last in its final qualification group, eight points behind Oman. The country was scheduled to host the 2023 Asian Cup in June but last May, Beijing relinquished its staging rights.
“It remains to be seen if and how quickly Chinese football can return to its ambitions and plans of 2019, and prior to that.” Simon Chadwick, professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy at Skema Business School, told the AP, adding that state help will be needed.
“It is important that the sport doesn’t just restart, but that it is kick-started . . . there must be a worry that unless both the government and Chinese football commit themselves to refreshing and relaunching it, then the sport could get stuck in the international doldrums.”
The pandemic also exacerbated a downturn in China’s overheated property market. With more than half of the clubs in the top tier owned, at least in part, by real estate companies, it has been a major soccer issue.
Evergrande, the property developer, saw its club Guangzhou, who won eight titles in the previous decade, relegated in December after the team’s stars left and were replaced by young domestic players.
Opening up the country is expected to boost the housing market especially as, in December, Chinese state banks opened up a line of credit worth around $460 billion for real estate companies. It remains to be seen if this will ease the financial strain on clubs.
“One suspects that the Chinese government will be keen to decouple football from its previous unhealthy relationship with property investors,” added Chadwick. “Both sectors need to discover some market discipline whilst being subject to the state’s appropriate guidance.”
For now though, fans just want to go and see their teams play.
“I won’t believe it until it happens,” said Wang. “It is when something disappears that you know how much it means. It will be very exciting.”