MOSCOW (Reuters) - China wants to host the World Cup one day and FIFA is looking at the idea; but soccer fans around the world might be forgiven for thinking that a Chinese World Cup is already reality.
From stadiums across Russia, pitchside advertising displays, beamed worldwide on television, carry many messages in Mandarin, undecipherable to most viewers, and unfamiliar Chinese logos leavening a diet of German sportswear and American soft drinks.
Also notable have been crowds of Chinese fans, getting into the spirit of Russia 2018 — even though their team is not even here. Before the tournament, Chinese bought over 40,000 tickets, two thirds as many as Germans and more than the English.
Soccer is growing fast in China under President Xi Jinping, and Chinese brands are using the World Cup to reach viewers at home. But many also see it as a way to enter new markets.
Eli Lavi, deputy general manager in Russia for consumer electronics maker Hisense, said sponsoring FIFA’s World Cup was part of a strategy to build the brand abroad: “Hisense’s future lies outside of China,” he said. “In China... they are number one in TV and a very well-known brand, and 10 years ago they decided to reach out the worldwide market.”
“It is the march of the Chinese brands and the millions of fans that are becoming more and more attracted to football,” Andy Sutherden, global head of sports and partnership marketing at Hill and Knowlton Strategies, said of this year’s World Cup.
At Nielsen Sports, which tracks sponsorship money going into FIFA, global managing director Glenn Lovett said that Chinese interest has helped FIFA President Gianni Infantino offset a drop in income elsewhere following the corruption scandal which felled his predecessor Sepp Blatter.
Nielsen Sports calculated that FIFA has exceeded budgeted revenue, by $200 million (151.40 million pounds), to reach $1.65 billion in sponsorship income for this budgetary cycle. “An increase in investment from Chinese companies this World Cup cycle has helped FIFA to exceed its initial sponsorship revenue expectations,” Lovett said.
“China is an increasingly important market for FIFA. With interest around the sport in China growing, it is unsurprising that more Chinese brands are engaging with the World Cup.”
FIFA spokespeople declined comment for this article.
FIFA last month awarded the 2026 competition hosting rights to the United States, Canada and Mexico, after Gulf emirate Qatar in 2022.
Neither FIFA nor Beijing will confirm an interest having the next, 2030, World Cup in China, but Xi told Infantino last year that China hope one day to host and the FIFA president, on a visit to him, wished for “many future projects together”.
With the organisation targeting getting 60 percent of the entire world’s population involved in the game — and 20 percent of the world living in China — cooperation will be key.
Hisense is one of three Chinese firms that FIFA lists among five World Cup sponsors, the others being smartphone maker Vivo and dairy firm Mengniu — none comparable in recognition terms with the two other sponsors, Budweiser and McDonald’s.
Others, such as menswear brand Diking, which signed up last month have regional deals with FIFA, while at the upper end of the payment scale, real estate conglomerate Wanda is among seven “global partners” of soccer’s world governing body. Its adverts have become a familiar feature at the Russia World Cup.
“Football is the most popular sport in the world,” said Yang Hengming, president of Wanda Sports, in Beijing. “Football has unique potential to bring the people together, and bring the community together. And this is exactly why Wanda has signed up with FIFA, not just for the 2018 World Cup, but until 2030.
“For people in China, to work with FIFA, it brings a real progress and changes for those in China and around the world.”
Additional reporting by Pei Li in Beijing and Jess Omari and Alexandra Regida in Moscow; Editing by Christian Radnedge