MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) - The FIFA corruption scandal might at one stage have put off some potential western sponsors, but the plethora of Chinese companies backing this World Cup are by no means just plugging a gap, Chief Commercial Officer Philippe Le Floc’h said on Sunday.
China’s involvement this year has been more marked than at any previous tournament, from the estimated 40,000 travelling fans to the tens of millions watching on TV at home and the ubiquitous Chinese advertising in stadiums around Russia.
The latter is the result of an unprecedented level of Chinese involvement in FIFA’s sponsorship programmes, which have traditionally been filled by more familiar multi-national brands from the West or Japan.
Le Floc’h said there “maybe” had been a time when western sponsors were put off by the corruption scandal, but to ascribe the shift East in FIFA’s sponsors simply to that would be a mistake.
“We never spoke to anybody telling us ‘You know what, you guys are toxic. We don’t want to work with you’,” he told Reuters in Moscow.
“It’s just that economy wasn’t that great, it’s a heavy investment (and) you had a shift of world economy and some Asian companies, or Chinese in particular, are looking for the best vector of communication to push the drive to the world with a global footprint.
“There was a good fit. So sometimes you need to have the right constellation of events happening to work. So we’re very happy with the way we are.”
The involvement of Chinese companies with FIFA is fairly new. Solar panel manufacturer Yingli Green Energy was China’s first World Cup sponsor as recently as 2010.
Real estate conglomerate Wanda, which also counts entertainment and sport among its huge portfolio of interests, is now among the seven “global partners” of soccer’s world governing body and is committed to remain so until 2030.
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.
“Chinese companies are eager to learn and expand and develop and they’re also very eager to develop football in China which is what we want to do,” Le Floc’h added.
Developing football, and the wider sports market, in China is also a key objective of President Xi Jinping, and major Chinese companies have been quick to get involved.
“Wanda is the first Chinese top partner with FIFA and we’re pretty proud of that and we’re very happy about it,” Wanda Sports Group chief executive Yang Hengming told Reuters at the company’s hospitality area at the Luzhniki Stadium.
“We are happy to see other Chinese companies follow our footsteps, and we believe it will be good for the sport in China to develop as more and more Chinese companies are standing behind the scene just like we do.”
Of course there was never much chance of China appearing at the Luzhniki in Sunday’s final, the country having failed to qualify for the fourth straight World Cup.
That failure on the pitch has not dimmed the ambitions of China and its president to one day host the tournament, however, and having a raft of Chinese sponsors involved with FIFA will not hurt that cause.
“Hopefully,” said Yang when asked whether he thought it would help.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Hugh Lawson