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China’s borders reopen and with it hopes for a resurgence of football

After three years of isolation and financial strife in Chinese football, the country is reopening its borders and economy to the outside world. With this, frustrated fans, financially incapacitated clubs and unpaid players in the Chinese Super League may get some long-awaited good news.

The 2022 season was unrecognizable from the 2019 edition, which was the last before COVID-19 hit. The league then had an average attendance of over 24,000, the highest in Asia, and featured several big-name foreign imports.

From 2020 onwards, Beijing’s ‘zero-covid’ policy, designed to stamp out the virus, meant teams mostly played in centralized venues in empty stadiums. Players were trapped in a bio-secure bubble for months and international stars unable to enter the country were released from contract.

It also meant less ticket, broadcast or sponsorship revenue for the clubs. In 2021, defending champions Jiangsu FC folded and several other clubs struggled to pay players.

Opening up the country may not mean a return to reckless spending of the last decade, rather it is a prerequisite to begin the journey back to pre-pandemic levels. It is reported that the clubs will play home and away games in the 2023 season.

“It seems that there have been months of delays, no games and strange schedules in the past three years with no league,” Shanghai Shenhua supporter Wang Yi told The Associated Press. “Some fans have lost interest but I think that will change when we can all be together again in the stadium.”

Due to strict government policies, foreign teams were unable to enter the country, forcing China to play the 2022 World Cup qualifiers at neutral venues. It finished last in its final qualifying group, eight points behind Oman. The country was to host the 2023 Asian Cup in June, but last May, Beijing relinquished its staging rights.

“It remains to be seen how quickly Chinese football can get back on track with its ambitions and plans for 2019 and beyond.” Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at the Schema business school, told the AP that state help would be needed.

“It is important that sport does not just resume, but it kick-starts. , , There should be a concern that unless both the government and Chinese football commit themselves to refreshing and relaunching it, the game could languish internationally.

The pandemic also exacerbated the slump in China’s overheated property market. With more than half of top-level clubs owned, at least partially, by real estate companies, this has been a major footballing issue.

Evergrande, the property developer, saw its club Guangzhou, which had won eight titles in the past decade, collapse in December after the team’s stars left and were replaced by young domestic players.

The country’s opening up is expected to boost the housing market, in particular, in December, Chinese state banks opened credit lines worth nearly $460 billion to real estate companies. It remains to be seen whether this will ease the financial pressure on clubs.

“One suspects the Chinese government will be keen to disentangle football from its past unhealthy relationship with property investors,” Chadwick said. “Both sectors need to find some market discipline, subject to proper guidance from the state.”

For now though, fans just want to go and watch their teams play.

Wang said, “I won’t believe it until it happens.” “It’s when something goes missing that you know how much it means. It will be very exciting.”

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