Wanda’s World Cup offensive not just bandwagon jumping, insists CEO as it dominates the hoardings in Russia

Yang Hengming says the company’s high-profile presence at the Fifa tournament is about providing Chinese fans with the best possible experience

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2018, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 July, 2018, 9:59am

China’s hopes of realising Xi Jinping’s dream of hosting the World Cup have unquestionably been the driving force behind the inexorable growth of the country’s influence on the global game in recent years.

But while those oft-repeated comments about the country qualifying for, hosting and winning the World Cup have framed every conversation about China’s involvement in the sport ever since, one entity is claiming their involvement in the global game is independent of the race by corporate China to jump on the football bandwagon.

Wanda Group have been amongst the highest-profile backers of the World Cup finals in Russia, their name clearly visible on the digital perimeter signage wrapping its way around the pitch at each of the 12 stadiums being used this summer. While there have been plenty of non-Chinese questioning what it is the company does, there can be no doubting Wanda’s presence.

For Yang Hengming, chief executive officer of Wanda Sports, there can also be no questioning of the company’s motives. Because while some might see Wanda’s backing of Fifa as a ploy to seek political favour at home or an attempt to play a role in influencing a future decision over World Cup hosting rights, he claims the reality is very different.

“At Wanda we did the partnership purely for our own business concerns and considerations,” Yang told South China Morning Post having sidestepped the issue of China’s future hosting of the tournament. “Sports is our business and it was a natural business decision.

“Wanda has a deep heritage in football. There’s a passion and the DNA within us to grow the sport and help China and that’s what we did and that’s what we have been doing and we continue to do that.

“The Fifa partnership just enables us to have another great platform on which to do that. To bring the expertise and to bring the resources and to bring the best matches into China and to give the Chinese fans a world class experience, and to allow the China team to compete and play with world class teams.

“That’s really something we are committed to doing because as a business we’re able to do that. We have the capability.”

Wanda’s relationship with Chinese football is unparalleled, largely due to the support of company owner Wang Jianlin. Wang backed the Dalian Wanda club that dominated the domestic league in the mid-1990s, winning four league titles and reaching the final of the Asian Club Championship in 1998 before withdrawing their support in protest at a series of match-fixing scandals that rocked the game in China.

Wanda eventually returned as a sponsor of the Chinese Football Association, pumping money into development programmes and footing the bill for Spaniard Jose Antonio Camacho to serve as national team coach during the disastrous qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup finals.

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Since expanding their involvement in football further to sign up as a partner of Fifa, the company launched the China Cup competition last year, which sees leading international sides face off against the national side in an attempt to boost the status of Marcello Lippi’s team. Development work, claims Yang, has also been a key part of what the company is seeking to do to boost Chinese football.

“Through the years we have had football investments and one of the things we have to get right in China is the grassroots and to develop from a very early age the young talents and that’s crucial,” he said. “That’s the essential part. And that’s what we have done.

“Six years ago we started that and now we have invested huge financial resources and we have brought 184 kids to some of the most prestigious La Liga clubs in Spain and helped them to grow and develop.

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The other thing is that we are now able, through the partnership with Fifa, to access their resources and their grassroots capability.”

Despite their close and long-standing connections to Chinese football, Wanda remains an unknown entity to many in the world beyond China and a briefing given at the company’s hospitality suite at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday sought to address those concerns.

But perhaps more important than enhancing their profile is the sense that the company wants to play a role in further improving the standard of the game in the country, making China’s status on the field of play commensurate with the nation’s standing in other spheres.

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“As a Chinese company – and as a sports company as well – it’s certainly our aspiration that the status of China will be comparable in terms of its financial, economic and geopolitical power and then in sports, and in particular in football,” he said.

“But it will take time, it will take effort. There are many things that we need to do at different levels. There are efforts that need to be done at government level and there are things that need to be done at community level and at our level, the business level, which we need to play an active role and which we are doing and we will continue to do.”