China is making its mark at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but not on the pitch where it counts
China’s commercial and financial might continue to ensure it is a key player in Russian proceedings, but it also serves to remind football fans how far they have to go to participate
It’s been 16 years since a tousle-haired Bora Milutinovic led China to their first – and still only – appearance at the World Cup finals, when Fifa happily manipulated the draw to ensure the Serb and his team would be based in South Korea.
“Geographical and economic reasons” were touted by Fifa’s then-general secretary Michel Zen Ruffinen as the Chinese were invited to pour into the tournament co-hosts in numbers not seen since the Korean war.
That desire to accommodate and harness Chinese financial wants and needs has only grown in the years since and, despite their continued absence from the field of play when Russia 2018 kicks off, the country’s profile will be greater at this World Cup than at any since 2002.
Fans, sponsors, broadcasters, media and just about anyone else associated with the sport in China will be aiming to find a way to be in Russia for the next month, starting on Thursday when the hosts open the tournament against Saudi Arabia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
More than 100,000 Chinese are expected to take advantage of visa-free travel between the countries during the month-long event with more than 40,000 tickets sold through Fifa’s official website by the end of last week to fans from China.
That number will swell further through hospitality packages sold via another of Fifa’s official partners, BH Hospitality and their mainland agent Shankai, with Chinese football fans based in Europe also expected to attend in significant numbers.
The association of corporate China with the game’s greatest property will be more prevalent than before, both in an overt and behind-the-scenes capacity. Russia 2018 could, in a sense, be China’s great coming out party.
Infront Sports & Media, the company charged with selling Fifa’s international broadcast rights, is owned by Wanda Group, themselves one of four Chinese companies who will feature as top-end commercial partners of Russia 2018 alongside mobile phone manufacturer Vivo, electronic goods maker Hisense and Mingniu, a dairy producer based in Inner Mongolia.
Wuhan DDMC Culture Company, parent company of the group that owns Chinese Super League side Chongqing Lifan as well as European clubs Granada and Parma, have also been enlisted to sign up companies for the tournament’s regional sponsorship platform in Asia.
That means an additional three Chinese organisations – men’s attire brand Diking, global technology and entertainment experience company Luci and Yadea, who manufacture electric motorcycles and bicycles – have joined a programme that gives them limited regional association with the tournament.
CCTV, meanwhile, have paid between US$300 and US$400 million to secure the broadcast rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, with the state broadcaster announcing last month a deal to work with digital outlets Migu and Youku to air the games on their mobile and online platforms respectively.
With access to over 900 million viewers, CCTV is believed to have sold more than 5 billion yuan worth of advertising for this summer’s tournament and will send 70 staff to supplement the coverage received from the tournament’s host broadcaster.
That number pales in comparison to those committed by Tencent as the digital company attempts to use football to further establish itself as a leader in China’s highly competitive content market.
The online outfit behind WeChat will take more than 100 staff to Russia and will set up base in a film studio on the outskirts of Moscow to create and package content across their platforms in partnership with global entertainment companies such as ESPN.
And while China will not be represented on the field, the Chinese Super League will have a presence both on and off the pitch.
Nine players contracted to Chinese sides, including Brazil’s Renato Augusto and Belgian duo Yannick Carrasco and Axel Witsel, are included among the 736 players across the 32 finalists, highlighting the financial muscle of the country’s clubs.
The Chinese Super League, meanwhile, is sending a 29-strong delegation, with plans to visit the Russian Premier League on a fact-finding and exchange mission.
And amid it all will be Milutinovic, the man who made China’s World Cup dreams come true more than a decade and a half ago.
Serving as member of Fifa’s technical study group while juggling his commitments as an ambassador for Qatar’s Aspire Academy, the boisterous Serb will bring his own inimitable style and flamboyant charm to proceedings.
Now in his 74th year, the man known as Milu remains an enduring icon in China, his status highlighted by the roar that greeted his introduction ahead of a recent celebrity match in Shanghai, where he was once again leading many of the players he took to South Korea in 2002.
The tentacles of Chinese commerce continue to penetrate the world’s greatest sporting properties but, unlike the Olympics, the World Cup will pass off with the country’s on-field participants watching from the stands or on television.
China may be contributing more economically to the global game than ever, but their absence from where it really matters will remain keenly felt, at home more than anywhere else.