China building toward World Cup dream

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Guangzhou Evergrande head coach Fabio Cannavaro poses in front of an image of the club's planned new 100,000-seat stadium. XINHUA

China is in the throes of a multibillion-dollar splurge on new soccer stadiums, ramping up ambitions to be a superpower in the sport and host a FIFA World Cup as early as 2030.

The building spree is taking place despite the coronavirus pandemic which has brought much of the world to a standstill, ravaging economies and putting live sport on hold.

But with the outbreak receding in China, where it emerged in December, eight-time Chinese Super League champion Guangzhou Evergrande began construction on its 12 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) new home.

With a capacity of 100,000, the lotus flower-shaped stadium will for a time trump Barcelona's Camp Nou-which is set to be expanded to accommodate 105,000 spectators-as the world's biggest soccer arena, once it is completed by the end of 2022.

Property giant Evergrande Group said it also intends to build two more 80,000-seat stadiums in the world's most populous nation.

The country will have at least 12 major new soccer stadiums two years from now, said Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily, calling it "a new era for Chinese football".

Most will be used for the newly expanded 2021 Club World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, but the Chinese government has his eyes on the biggest prize of all.

"I think China's desire to apply for the World Cup is very clear," said Ji Yuyang, a journalist for Oriental Sports Daily.

Ji said it is a matter of when, not if, China bids.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in June that he would welcome a Chinese bid to stage the 2030 World Cup finals, the next edition that is up for grabs.

Bold design

Guangzhou Evergrande's new stadium made headlines because of its vast scale and bold design.

With most sports in the world shut down and economies reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, the scale of Evergrande's ambition is especially amazing.

Guangzhou is not holding Asian Cup games and the 100,000-seat stadium will not be ready for the Club World Cup, even though the tournament is poised to be put back from the summer of 2021 because of the pandemic.

Some Western observers, therefore, queried why a club that averages about 50,000 for home matches needs such a big arena.

"I think Evergrande may have two considerations. First, a 100,000-seat stadium might come in handy if China hosts a World Cup final or opening ceremony," said Ji.

"Another point is that Evergrande will be able to make a statement by saying that they have the largest professional football stadium in the world, with the largest number of spectators."

Most stadiums currently used by Chinese soccer teams were built for multiple sports, with some now in need of upgrades.

Replacing them with gleaming, soccer-specific arenas fits with the Chinese government's master plan to transform the sport in the country, both on and off the pitch.

Shanghai upgrade

In Shanghai, a 33,000-seat stadium for 2018 CSL champion Shanghai SIPG is scheduled to be finished next year.

Shanghai Stadium, the biggest arena in the city and SIPG's former home, is also undergoing major renovations.

Ji said that while Evergrande Group is likely paying for Guangzhou's new stadium, in some other instances it is a combination of the club and local government that fund construction.

Professor Simon Chadwick said that aside from China's World Cup aspirations, the rush on new stadiums sends a message that Chinese soccer "is developing and becoming healthier and stronger".

"There's something about the iconography and symbolism of the stadiums, particularly the Guangzhou development," said Chadwick, director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry at Emlyon Business School in Lyon, France.

"This is a huge stadium, incredibly striking design, pictures of it have been carried across the world and people are commenting on it across the world.

"China is trying to use these hugely distinctive stadium designs as a way of attracting people and attention, of getting people to understand that China wants the same things that other countries want."

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