Beijing promises jaded jewel will shine for Asian Cup
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Last Thursday more than 1,000 children gathered in the Temple of Heaven to mark the 365th day before Beijing blasts a fanfare across the continent to signal the start of the 2004 Asian Cup.
Sandwiched between the 2002 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics, the tournament will undoubtedly set new highs in a year that marks both the 80th anniversary of the Chinese Football Association (CFA) and the golden jubilee for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
South Korea's unprecedented place in the semi-finals of the World Cup was a sign of the massive development work that has been going on across the three East Asian giants, China, South Korea and Japan, for the past 10 years. The Koreans and Japanese will enter the Asian Cup recognised, arguably for the first time, as genuinely world-class teams. By that time players like Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto, Li Tie, Sun Jihai, Lee Young-pyo and Song Chong-gug might not be Asian stars playing in Europe, but stars in their own right.
Statistically, China is already guaranteed to set new benchmarks for the tournament. With 16 teams taking part, it is the biggest Asian Cup ever. Geographically, it is also on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Over 1,600 kilometres separate the venue cities - Beijing and Jinan in the north, Chengdu and Chongqing in the southwest. For the first time in Asian Cup history air travel will be essential within the host nation.
But while the tournament is being staged on an unprecedented scale, the jewel in the crown of the Asian game may not have the sparkle that has come to be expected at major international tournaments. The 1996 Asian Cup had the Zayed City Sports Stadium in Abu Dhabi, which although 16 years old at the time was still a venue that rose spectacularly from the desert. The 2000 Asian Cup had the City Sportive, a neoclassical reconstruction of the stadium bombed off the face of Beirut that managed to represent both the rebuilding of a modern post-war Lebanon and its sumptuous history shaped by Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans alike.
With its athletics track still in the faded and battered state in which it has languished in recent years, the Beijing Workers' Stadium hardly compares with its Asian Cup predecessors, let alone with the state-of-the-art amphitheatres that Korea and Japan conjured up, with the help of billions of dollars, to mark Asia's first hosting of the World Cup. Built in 1959 the 66,000-seat stadium is an effective and efficient looking crucible that is showing its age. Yet, with the capital's resources focused on the massive building projects for the Olympics it seems little will change as the clock ticks towards the start of the 13th Asian Cup.
'It has staged national games, Asian Games, the Universiade. It's an international standard stadium,' insisted Zhang Heng, the executive general secretary of Beijing's local organising committee, a director of Beijing's Athletic Contest Administration and a key figure in the city's football administration.
'We have an international standard grass pitch and the lighting and scoreboard also reach international standards. We have dressing rooms all of international standard too. So for this reason we are only doing a little reconstruction. What we want to do is resurface the playing area and for this reason the Beijing government has already invested 10 million yuan [HK$9,440,000].'
But Zhang Heng's loyalty to the Workers' Stadium is not universally shared. Zhang Jilong, vice-president of the CFA and a member of the AFC's executive committee conceded that the 44-year-old stadium was not an ideal choice as the central venue. 'It's a pity that we are still using the Workers' Stadium for the opening ceremony and the final, but Beijing has a huge programme for developing world-class venues for 2008,' he said. 'They'll still be under construction, so we couldn't use them.'
Indeed, Beijing is in danger of being overshadowed by the satellite venues. Chongqing and Chengdu are both building brand new venues with capacities of 60,000 and 30,000 respectively. In Jinan, the provincial government is investing 83 million yuan to refurbish the Shandong Sports Centre Stadium, which was built only in 1988. 'We have finished the installation of 43,700 new seats, a colourful giant scoreboard and new turf. Especially the new turf has been highly praised by the C-League teams who have played there,' explained Xu Changtai, the inspector of the Shandong Sport Bureau. 'Now the construction and renovation in progress are the players and referees dressing rooms, the doping control rooms, VIP rooms, and media centre and media tribune. We are assured that the renovations will be completed by December 2003. We'll provide a stadium meeting the requirements of the AFC and the conditions and facilities for the teams and spectators will be of an international standard.'
The Asian Cup organisers are also having to recruit 5,000 volunteers to cope with a problem familiar to the organisers of the 2002 World Cup - hurdling the language barrier - which in this case requires proficiency in English, Arabic, Japanese and Korean.
Meanwhile, the expansion to 16 teams will only exacerbate an issue that is raised by every Asian Cup. While the host is usually able to muster passionate support for the home team, because of the immaturity of the pan-Asian media, there is little exposure of the Asian game from country to country.
On top of that, since China won the right to host the event at a meeting held in Beirut just before the 2000 final, Korea and Japan have taken the concept of hosting in Asia into another galaxy. 'That's absolutely right,' agreed Zhang Jilong. 'The success of 2002 not only increased the expectations on the organisers of 2004 it also raised the standards. We have to pull some of the experiences of 2002 into 2004 - the facilities, hotel arrangements, transport, communications, security and health.'
While the 2003 Women's World Cup was a Sars casualty, the Asian Cup appears to have emerged largely unscathed, despite the CFA reporting a US$1 million hole in their finances as a result of the former's relocation to North America. 'After the WHO lifted the ban on travelling to Sars areas we had to more seriously pay attention to the health issue and to try to guarantee no one will be affected by atypical pneumonia during their stay in China,' Zhang Jilong explained. 'Everything's getting better and better. We've lost some time, but not too much. It hasn't affected the Asian Cup preparations.
'Fortunately, FIFA has respected the work we've done on the Women's World Cup in the last two years. We understand the AFC's regulations and requirements for the Asian Cup and we understand the work of the 2003 Women's World Cup staff. We've actually gained some experienced staff. It actually has helped the Asian Cup.'