By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) -China will no longer host the 2023 Asian Cup finals due to the COVID-19 situation in the country, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) said on Saturday, adding that it will decide on a new host in due course.
The event, which is played every four years and features 24 national teams from across the continent, was due to be held in 10 cities from June 16 to July 16 next year.
“The Asian Football Confederation has been officially informed by the CFA (Chinese Football Association) that it would not be able to host the AFC Asian Cup 2023,” the confederation said in a statement.
“The AFC acknowledges the exceptional circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the relinquishment by China PR of its hosting rights.”
The news was one of the top trending topics on Chinese social media site Weibo on Saturday, generating nearly 60 million reads within a few hours.
Many readers said the move may mean the country’s zero COVID policy could remain in place well into next year, while others questioned what will happen to the 10 stadiums constructed or renovated for the competition.
Others joked that the move was good for the much-maligned men’s national team, who currently sit 77th in the FIFA world rankings.
“Now the national team has plenty of time to improve. Keep working hard,” wrote a user called MrClock in a top-rated comment.
The Asian Cup is the latest international sporting event to be affected by China’s attempts to tackle the pandemic.
Earlier this month, Asian Games organisers the Olympic Council of Asia postponed the next edition of the multi-sport event, due to be held in the Chinese city of Hangzhou in September, until 2023.
China, which had been due to host the Asian Cup for the first time since 2004, continues to implement a zero-COVID policy and cities across the country have faced tight restrictions after a recent outbreak of the Omicron variant.
Shanghai has been under lockdown for more than a month while other cities, including the capital Beijing, are facing a wave of additional curbs, frequent testing and targeted lockdowns.
Most international sporting events in China have been postponed or cancelled since the start of the pandemic, with the notable exception of the Winter Olympics, which went ahead in Beijing under strict health controls in February.
The Chinese Formula 1 Grand Prix has been not been held since 2019, while WTA events have been suspended due to a standoff over concerns relating to the safety of Chinese player Peng Shuai.
China is scheduled to host four ATP events this year, including the Shanghai Masters and the China Open in October.
The Chinese Super League is yet to announce when the new football season will begin, while the CFA has also given up the right to host July’s East Asian Championships, which will now take place in Japan.
(Reporting by Michael Church in Hong Kong, Additional reporting by Martin Pollard; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Hugh Lawson)