China ended weeks of speculation and officially withdrew from hosting the 2023 AFC Asian Cup on Saturday, the continent’s football confederation said.
The announcement sparked speculation over which country will be named as the replacement, with Qatar expected to take over.
The decision came as no surprise as China struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19. In the past few weeks, the East Asian Football Championships, due to be held in July, had been switched to Japan, while the 2022 Asian Games, due to take place in Hangzhou in September, were postponed.
“The Asian Football Confederation acknowledges the exceptional circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the relinquishment by China PR of its hosting rights,” the AFC said in a statement.
It added that China “had made this very difficult but necessary decision in the collective interests of the AFC Asian Cup 2023, which has also provided the AFC the required time to assess the situation regarding the hosting of the AFC Asian Cup 2023.”
The focus now is on where and when the 2023 Asian Cup will be held. Qatar are front-runners to step in and stage the competition in January 2024. The 2022 World Cup host will have the stadiums, facilities and know-how to do the job.
However, the decision will not be taken in isolation as there is 2027 to consider. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are front-runners in the bidding for that tournament, ahead of India and Iran. If Qatar replace China then the coast will then be clear for Saudi Arabia to stage the following competition three years later. This is currently the most-talked about solution at the AFC, and would be acceptable to both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but there are still issues to iron out.
It would mean three consecutive tournaments in West Asia: The UAE in 2019, Qatar in 2023 and Saudi Arabia in 2027. That would not go down well in some parts of the continent. Perhaps the ideal solution would be for South Korea, who originally planned to bid for the 2023 Asian Cup but withdrew in favor of China, to step in either alone or with Japan.
However, an official at the Korea Football Association told Arab News that while they would have discussions in the wake of China’s withdrawal, it is unlikely that they will rekindle their earlier efforts.
Japan seems to be even less enthusiastic — neither politicians nor the general population seem especially interested in staging a huge tournament with COVID-19 still lingering. East Asia, which has not hosted the tournament since 2004, may not be happy at the prospect of the tournament becoming a Western affair, but just does not have the will to do anything about it.
Southeast Asia could be another option, as in 2007 when Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand came together, but it is unlikely they would be able to get themselves organized in time even if the desire was there. China may want the 2027 tournament, but is not in a position to be making any demands.
Time is of the essence. China have given up the tournament over a year before it was due to kick off and this was because of the AFC’s insistence on either a guarantee or a withdrawal. Organizing a 24-nation competition takes time, which is why the confederation will want a replacement announced sooner rather than later. It will not be a major problem if the tournament is held in January 2024 as that gives a few extra months to prepare.
The continent’s flagship tournament appears to be coming back to West Asia sooner than expected, but there are sure to be some deep discussions at the AFC Congress due to be held on Wednesday.