China has relinquished its hosting rights to the AFC Asian Cup 2023 amid the continuing challenges created by its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced that it had been notified by the Chinese Football Association (CFA) that it could no longer host the 24-team international competition, scheduled for next July.

China, which is pursuing a ‘zero COVID strategy’, was awarded hosting rights in 2019 and has since achieved several milestones in preparation, including the completion of the Shanghai Pudong Football Stadium last year.

Following China’s withdrawal, the AFC said further details about the next steps related to the hosting the tournament will be announced in due course. Earlier this month, Asian Games organisers the Olympic Council of Asia postponed the next edition of the multi-sport event, due to be held in the Chinese city of Hangzhou in September, until 2023.

An AFC spokesperson said: “The AFC acknowledges the exceptional circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the relinquishment by China PR of its hosting rights.

“The AFC appreciates that China PR, the CFA and the AFC Asian Cup China 2023 LOC have 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 AFC will continue to work closely with its commercial partners and stakeholders to chart the course forward and remains grateful to them for their understanding and support during this period.”

Some 10 host cities were due to stage the championships from June 16 to July 16, 2023. The new Beijing Workers’ Stadium, which is set to be completed later this year, was to host the final.

The decision has been announced just as Shanghai set out plans to ease COVID restrictions. A strict lockdown has been in place for more than a month, but rules will begin to change from the start of June. However, international travel restrictions have been tightened with the authorities imposing a de facto international travel ban for “non-essential” reasons, according to CNN.

Images: Asian Football Confederation (AFC)