With the World Cup now well underway, certain distinctive groups of fans have already left their mark on the tournament. The Peruvians are there in huge numbers (possibly up to 80,000), the Senegalese danced their way through their country’s first match, and the Japanese cleaned the stadium up after the national team’s opening game. England fans have, however, been far less noticeable than one would normally expect.
Whether it’s because of the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury or the threat of Russian hooligan violence, ahead of the tournament England’s fans had only bought 31,000 World Cup tickets between them. Even so, this still placed them in a list of the top 11 countries purchasing tickets.
Top of the list was Russia (800,000), with the likes of Brazil, Germany, and Mexico predictably also appearing. Somewhat surprisingly, the non-qualifying United States accounted for the second most ticket sales (80,000).
Even more surprising is China’s appearance on the list. In fact, with 37,000 tickets sold according to FIFA, and Chinese state media claiming a total of 60,000 in Russia, it appears there are more Chinese fans at the tournament than English fans. This is despite China being a country whose World Cup record is abysmal, having qualified only once—in 2002—when it lost all three of its games by an aggregate score of nine-nil. It is also a country most people do not commonly associate with football, even though China’s president Xi Jinping wants his country to become a major global player.
No China, no problem
Previous research indicates that China’s football fans are nevertheless big supporters of national teams other than their own. During the 2014 World Cup, Germany was a favorite team among many Chinese fans and this continued in the intervening period. Despite a surprise defeat by Mexico in their opening game in Russia, Die Mannschaft still promise long-term status and success in a way that other nations’ football teams do not.
Brazil and Spain are among the other national sides that Chinese fans are following. Brazil is especially popular as several of its leading players have signed for Chinese Super League clubs in the past few years.
Other Chinese fans who are traveling to watch World Cup matches will be more interested in seeing top stars rather than supporting a team. Both Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo are hugely popular in China, especially among younger people who live their lives through social media. Ronaldo for instance has 1.8m followers on the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, Weibo.
One can be sure though that most of those Chinese following the tournament in Russia will not be from a super-rich elite, but members of the country’s sizable middle class which has emerged after years of buoyant economic growth. By 2022, it has been estimated that 76% of China’s urban population will be classified as middle class, with purchasing power somewhere between the average incomes of Brazil and Italy. This compares with only 4% in 2000.
One should not forget either that China has a rather different relationship with Russia than, say, England or France. The two countries’ leaders recently said their relationship is possibly the closest it has ever been, hence it is likely that Chinese travelers do not feel intimated by thoughts of, say, being attacked by local hooligans. Otherwise, fans recently engaged with football following the Chinese government’s promotion of the sport may simply see the World Cup as a way of indulging in their new-found passion.
This has resulted in a spending boom among middle-class consumers, with people typically consuming anything from personal development and fitness products to clothes and entertainment. Many are motivated by a desire to boost their social image, hence their consumption is frequently conspicuous and often focused on high-end brands. Chinese consumers also have an increasingly strong global outlook. The country’s outbound tourism expenditure now totals more than US$260 billion, double that of the US.
The World Cup therefore plays to a narrative now routinely associated with China’s increasingly affluent population: people who are keen to engage with the world’s biggest and best football tournament for the status it confers upon them, which they may also consume in conjunction with supporting a similarly status-laden national team or superstar.
It is therefore very unlikely that we will be seeing coverage of Chinese fans drinking heavily in a market square somewhere in Russia, or that we will hear of violent clashes with local fans. Indeed, as the tournament unfolds, Chinese fans are more likely to be found in shops or restaurants buying branded merchandise and good food.