When the World Cup opens in Moscow on June 14, soccer fans may notice something out of the ordinary. Alongside the slick ad campaigns for famous global brands — Visa, Adidas, Coca-Cola — there will be a proliferation of pitches from obscure companies with names like Mengniu, Vivo and Wanda. These newly minted World Cup sponsors aren’t selling much that is related to soccer; these three, for example, trade in dairy products, electric scooters and movie theaters. They all come from a country, moreover, whose national team has never scored a single World Cup goal and is not among the 32 qualifying teams this year, but which still sees itself as the future of soccer: China.
Beijing has made no secret of its soccer ambitions. Over the past few years, President Xi Jinping has vowed to turn China into a “soccer superpower” that will host, qualify for and, by 2050, hopefully win the World Cup. The last goal seems almost ludicrously unattainable: China’s men’s team languishes at No. 73 in the world rankings, behind juggernauts like Curaçao and Cape Verde. Yet the sudden appearance of Chinese companies as top corporate sponsors at this year’s World Cup hints at the country’s opportunistic rise in the world of soccer. Its incursion was precipitated by a crisis. Actually, two crises. The tournament host, Russia, and the sport’s governing body, FIFA, are beset by scandals and controversies that have cast a shadow over the event — and made it a struggle to attract corporate sponsors.
FIFA is still reeling from a hydra-headed corruption case that forced the resignation of its longtime president Sepp Blatter in 2015 and led to the indictment of more than 30 soccer figures around the world. Russia, meanwhile, has been excoriated in the West for everything from poisoning a former spy and his daughter on foreign soil to stoking wars in Syria and Ukraine and meddling in Western elections. When a member of Parliament in Britain compared this year’s World Cup to the Nazi Olympics in 1936, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, agreed, lamenting the “emetic prospect of Putin glorying in this sporting event.” The friendly veneer of the world’s most popular sporting event has been stripped away. “The Russians’ earlier rhetoric about the World Cup — ‘We want to welcome the world’ — is largely gone,” says Sven Daniel Wolfe, an expert on Russian sporting politics at the University of Lausanne. “Russian elites are done trying to integrate with the West. They are very content now to tout their ‘eastward pivot.’ ”
After television broadcasting rights, corporate sponsorships account for the largest portion of FIFA’s revenue — some $1.58 billion (out of $4.8 billion in total revenue) at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Companies have vied for sponsorship slots, eager to promote their brands before an audience that can number more than three billion over the course of the monthlong tournament. (The final game in Brazil alone attracted more than one billion viewers; the 2018 Super Bowl drew a little more than 100 million.) But scandals have changed the calculus. The fear of being associated with FIFA or Russia may have pushed away a few big partners (Sony, Johnson & Johnson, Castrol) and scared off other potential sponsors. “We used to have top companies queuing up,” says Patrick Nally, a sports-marketing specialist who helped develop FIFA’s tiered sponsorship system. “Now they can’t attract any big names.”