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, with Beijing’s strict zero-Covid strategy dealing another blow to the country’s sporting ambitions.

Authorities in China are pursuing a strategy of stamping out the virus entirely, which includes rapid lockdowns and mass testing, and millions in Shanghai have faced onerous restrictions for more than a month.

But the measures — now rare globally, as most countries shift to living with Covid — have made hosting sporting events a major challenge.

The Olympic-sized Asian Games, due to be staged in September in Hangzhou, had already been postponed last week, and on Saturday the AFC said China would not host the Asian Cup.

Chinese football officials had informed the governing body that they would not be able to host the event, which is played every four years and features 24 national teams from across the continent and was due to be held in 10 cities from June 16 to July 16 next year.

No new host nation was named, with the AFC saying that next steps related to the tournament would be announced in due course.

“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.”

Those involved in organising the tournament had made “this very difficult but necessary decision in the collective interests of” the tournament, it added.

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.

It would have been the second time that China had staged the Asian Cup. They hosted it in 2004, when they lost 3-1 to Japan in the final.

Qatar won the last edition in 2019.

The loss of major sporting events is a blow to the ruling Communist Party, which had burnished its global image with an array of dazzling spectacles such as Beijing’s 2008 Summer and 2022 Winter Olympics China has also staged tennis and golf tournaments featuring all the world’s leading stars, and a showpiece annual Formula One Grand Prix.

But with the exception of this year’s Winter Olympics — held in a virus-secure, closed-loop Beijing bubble in February — the world’s most populous nation has cancelled or postponed almost all events since Covid emerged in Wuhan in late 2019.

Experts now believe that the costly and labour-intensive Winter Olympics bubble now appears to have been the exception rather than the rule.

The Chinese F1 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.

Asian Games organisers have said new dates will be announced “in the near future” for the tournament, which typically attracts more than 10,000 athletes and were scheduled to take place from September 10 to 25.

Host city Hangzhou lies less than 200 kilometres (120 miles) from Covid-hit Shanghai.

China’s biggest city has for weeks faced a shifting mosaic of lockdowns that have seen some of its 25 million residents scuffle with police and unleash a flood of fury and frustration on social media.

There was panic buying in Beijing last week after rumours spread that the capital could be placed under an onerous lockdown like that in Shanghai. Hundreds of areas across the capital are facing some form of restrictions as cases rise.

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