China is out of the 2018 Russia World Cup—but its businesses are not

It’s easier to make it on to a billboard than on to the pitch.
It’s easier to make it on to a billboard than on to the pitch.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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China is not sending a team to the 2018 Russia World Cup, to the dismay of fans. But the country’s businesses are not going to miss the world’s most popular sports event.

The nation’s second-biggest dairy firm, China Mengniu Dairy, has become the latest sponsor for the 2018 World Cup, soccer’s global governing body FIFA announced yesterday (Dec. 20). The Inner Mongolia-based company will be the official supplier of drinkable yogurt and pre-packaged ice cream for June’s tournament. Under the sponsorship deal, Mengniu has also earned the right to broadcast a seven-minute commercial during each of the 64 World Cup matches in Russia.

Mengniu now becomes the fourth Chinese sponsor for the 2018 World Cup, at a time when international brands are reluctant to spend money on the tournament in the aftermath of FIFA’s 2015 bribery scandal. The dairy maker will join consumer electronics producer Hisense and smartphone brand Vivo as second-tier sponsors for the 2018 event. Last year, FIFA also signed Chinese property-entertainment conglomerate Wanda Group as its top sponsor for the next four World Cups through 2030. Previous World Cups only saw sponsorship from one Chinese firms, solar-panel maker Yinli, which had second-tier sponsorship deals for the 2010 and 2014 tournaments.

FIFA offers three tiers of sponsorship for the World Cup. Although the group has secured seven of the eight top partnership seats for the 2018 tournament, many of the lower-tier sponsorship deals still remain to be tied up with just six months left until the kick-off in Moscow.

In 2015, three Western brands—Castrol, Continental and Johnson & Johnson—opted not to renew their second-tier sponsorship deals for the 2018 World Cup amid widespread allegations of corruption involving top FIFA officials, which later led to the resignation of Joseph “Sepp” Blatter as the group’s president after 17 years in the role.

Chinese businesses, meanwhile, don’t seem concerned about FIFA’s scandalous image. E-commerce giant Alibaba handed the organization its first sponsorship deal after the corruption investigations by the US and others, with an eight-year partnership of the annual FIFA Club World Cup—featuring champion clubs from six continental confederations—until 2020.

The latest agreements between Chinese firms and FIFA are a reflection of soccer’s growing importance in China under president Xi Jinping, an avid fan of the sport. In recent years, Chinese investors have bought up world-renowned European soccer clubs such as Italy’s AC Milan, and lured big-name players away from their home teams with astronomical paychecks—to the extent that many worry it may have distorted the market.

China’s beleaguered national soccer team didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup, despite having Marcello Lippi—who coached Italy to a World Cup championship in 2006—as team manager. The country’s soccer governing body now hopes the squad will reach the 2026 World Cup, when FIFA expands the number of teams in the tournament from 32 to 48.

Or, China could just host a World Cup so as to play the World Cup, and make everyone from Xi, to company executives, to fans happy.