When David Beckham visited China last year in his new role as ambassador for its national football league, he said that the Chinese must focus on promoting grass roots football instead of lavishing money on foreign talent (his own ambassadorial fee excepted, no doubt).
That meant more youth football academies and – above all – more football pitches to play on.
Beckham’s advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears in Shenzhen. Rather than building more pitches, the authorities there have just closed down a popular playing venue called Lotus Hill. According to the Shenzhen Evening News 300 amateur teams used the facility, which boasted six grass pitches. However, when teams called up to book the pitches late last month, they were told the venue was no longer available as it was to be redeveloped into a residential-cum-commercial complex.
News of the decision spread quickly online. Footballers turned up at Lotus Hill with banners protesting against its closure and local streets were even paved with funereal flowers.
Fans say that the city already lacked playing venues and that the loss of the Lotus Hill fields makes it even harder for teams to find places to play and practice.
The problem is that Lotus Hill sits on 50,000 square metres of prime real estate. Yangcheng Evening News estimates the land is worth as much as Rmb20 billion ($3.2 billion). By contrast, teams renting a pitch pay Rmb500 a session.
Xinhua points out that football pitches are under threat in most major Chinese cities. For historical reasons sports facilities are often in central locations and near good transport links. That makes the land they sit on very valuable and a huge temptation for the local governments that need revenues from land sales, as well as the boost in local economic activity from new construction projects.
But Xinhua also suggests that the Lotus Hill closure runs counter to new government policies. On September 2 Premier Li Keqiang chaired a State Council meeting on accelerating the development of China’s sports industries. So the Lotus Hill demolition looks embarrassingly timed, it says. The newspaper also believes that the central government might rezone areas like Lotus Hill as ‘sports industry land’ as a means to stop local governments from selling them to developers.
School sports fields are often at risk too because land near schools is often high-value (parents want to live nearby get priority status for their children as students). Around the same time that the Lotus Hill closure was causing a hoopla online, another much-viewed photo doing the rounds on the internet showed one school in Zhejiang that had relocated its 200-metre running track onto its roof.
Soon dubbed ‘the air playground’, the unusual arrangement soon generated comments from netizens.
“Poor Chinese students,” said one. “Your playground has been robbed by developers.”
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