True to form, China failed to qualify for the World Cup but the planet’s most populous country will be far from absent: thousands of its fans will fly to Russia, and Chinese sponsors will loom large on global TV screens.
Despite not being able to cheer on their home side, many Chinese supporters are undeterred, and they are expected to arrive in numbers that will dwarf the followers of many competing teams.
The growing presence of fans and sponsors can be linked to China’s consumer boom, while excitement for football has been spurred on by President Xi Jinping’s ambitions to make 73rd-ranked China a world power in the sport.
China have only qualified once for the World Cup – when they exited goalless in 2002 – but expectations are high that it will bid to hold the tournament, with 2030 and 2034 often mentioned as possibilities.
One Chinese fan, Dai Qian, said he will spend nearly $10,000 to visit Russia and watch the tournament.
“We appreciate football as an art and we like the feeling of watching live football,” said the 38-year-old, a university professor in energy engineering who will travel as part of a 400-strong Chinese tour group.
According to the latest FIFA figures, nearly 37,000 tickets out of 1.7 million went to Chinese fans, the second-largest showing from countries that didn’t make the tournament, after the United States.
Dai said that in the absence of their own team, Chinese fans back the countries of their favourite players. For him, it’s Argentina because he grew up watching Italy’s Serie A on TV and was a fan of Gabriel Batistuta, the former Fiorentina and Roma striker.
Jump to be a global brand
According to research by Britain’s Professor Simon Chadwick, Germany are the most popular foreign team in China, with some female fans swayed by the players’ looks.
It helps that Germany are reigning world champions and among the favourites in Russia.
“There is something about ‘brand Germany’ and the relationship between Germany and China,” said Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at University of Salford.
“There are sections of the Chinese population who like to be conspicuous consumers – who like to be seen to be consuming the best brands, the best-quality brands, and that confers a particular status on them. The same is true of their football.
“So if you can be a fan, why not pick the best?”
Mark Dreyer, Beijing-based founder of the China Sports Insider website, said the growing ability of Chinese to afford overseas travel is a major reason for the large numbers going to the World Cup.
Russia is also much closer geographically to China than, for example, the World Cup in Brazil four years ago.
Television viewers across the globe and fans in World Cup stadiums will also become familiar with three tournament sponsors from China – tech company Vivo, electrical appliance and electronics supplier Hisense, and Mengniu Dairy.
There is also FIFA sponsor Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate and formerly a major stakeholder in Spain’s Atletico Madrid.
Zhu Shuqin, brand director at Hisense, declined to tell AFP how much the company paid for its sponsorship.
But she said a similar deal at football’s 2016 European Championship in France “helped us greatly in our global market expansion”.
That included a 60 percent surge in television sales in Europe in one quarter, Zhu said.
Already well known in China, Hisense are eyeing the North American, European and Japanese markets.
“We want to use such sponsorship to realise our globalisation goal,” said Zhu, outlining the company’s hopes from the World Cup.
“Secondly, we can see in the global market of consumer electronics that the top companies, such as Samsung and Sony, all choose this kind of top event to sponsor so that they can jump to be a global brand from a regional one.”