Chinese football fans out in force for Super League return
BEIJING - The streets around Beijing's Workers' Stadium were a sea of lime green on Saturday as tens of thousands of football fans turned out for the post-Covid return of the Chinese Super League.
After almost three years of pandemic restrictions, including games in secure "bubbles" and limits on attendances, normality is beginning to return to sport in China, and anticipation is high.
Hours before Saturday's game between Beijing Guoan and Meizhou Hakka, crowds were already gathering at the entrances of the stadium under the watchful eyes of hundreds of police officers.
"I have been a fan of Beijing Guoan for 10 years -- after three years, we can finally return home!" 20-year-old Li Nuowen told AFP excitedly.
"I have been bored at home for three years thanks to Covid," a teenager named Lou said. "I'm thrilled. It was so hard to get a ticket."
Tickets for the match reportedly sold out in just five minutes when released, and on Saturday large numbers of fans were still desperately trying to snag any spares going.
About 50,000 watched the opening ceremony and match in the stadium, according to official figures.
The game, which ended 1-1, was the first held since the Workers' Stadium underwent a vast rebuild.
The Communist Party-run tabloid Global Times called it "the perfect location for the start of a new era in Chinese soccer".
President Xi Jinping has described himself as a football fan and said he dreams of China hosting and winning a World Cup one day.
But after a boom period when Chinese clubs signed foreign stars for exorbitant fees, many teams hit hard times.
Several, including former champions Jiangsu FC, went to the wall.
The game in China is now in the grip of another major corruption scandal, which has seen several leading administrators placed under investigation, including football association head Chen Xuyuan.
But despite those issues -- and enduring disappointment with the national team -- fans appear to be relishing being back in stadiums without any Covid restrictions, with ticket sales for other opening-weekend games reportedly also strong.
"It's not been easy for the Chinese Super League to kick off this season," said Guoan fan Lou.
"I thought there would be another postponement or something -- it's really exciting to be able to start the season as normal." - AFP