China’s sponsorship at the 2022 World Cup has been front and centre. It’s soccer exploits are still catching up – for the men at least. The women’s national soccer team are hard to beat!
Global sport is big business and the FIFA World Cup – along with the Olympic Games – captures unparalleled public interest. In Qatar, men’s teams from 32 countries vie for glory on the pitch, but there are also benefits off the pitch for commercial enterprises, as well as nation-building opportunities. Here, China is a fascinating case in point because, despite the country not having a team at the 2022 World Cup, there remain significant Chinese business and geopolitical interests at this event.
As the men’s tournament kicked off, Zhou Jian, the Chinese ambassador to Qatar, emphasised his country’s substantial contribution to this World Cup. China, as we know, is not a participant, but Zhou pointed to his country’s extensive logistical, technological, manufacturing, and design input for the games, which has been instrumental in providing Qatar with the infrastructure needed to host the World Cup. Poetically, Zhou used soccer analogies to describe a fast-growing bilateral relationship: “The pragmatic cooperation between the two countries is like a striker who keeps scoring fantastic goals and creating great achievements.” Their collaborative ball of money keeps finding the back of the net because China is now Qatar’s largest trading partner, with some US$18 billion of economic activity.
Elsewhere, Chinese businesses have become crucial contributors to FIFA’s sponsorship portfolio. Back in 2017, FIFA’s standing with sponsors was compromised by criminal findings that football officials had accepted millions of dollars in bribes, revelations that resulted in several high profile Western companies withdrawing their financial support from the 2018 World Cup. Chinese sponsors moved in to fill the void, a decision that made commercial sense in terms of global exposure. But it also reflected pragmatism by the Chinese, who were unconcerned about FIFA’s dirty laundry because it did not involve them. Fast forward to the 2022 World Cup and China’s presence has been reaffirmed. FIFA has sixteen official sponsors and partners; six are Chinese companies. Taken together, these enterprises have invested $US1.4 billion, exceeding businesses from the United States, which spent collectively $US1.1 billion.
Made, yet dismayed in China
The almost ubiquitous role of Chinese businesses at the World Cup can only be glossed over here. Various souvenirs – flags, cups, bags, t-shirts, and more – are overwhelmingly made in China. Yiwu, a company from Zhejiang Province, manufactured 100,000 commemorative balls for sale in Qatar. Container houses, used for inexpensive accommodation during the tournament, were built by Chinese companies, with the fan village able to house 12,000 residents. The Lusal Stadium, the main arena for the tournament, was constructed by China Railway Construction Corporation in partnership with Qatar’s HBK building group.
Elsewhere, from a green energy perspective, Power Construction Corporation of China designed and built the Al Kharsaah solar power station, currently the third largest of its kind, which opened a month prior to the World Cup. Complementing the growth of renewables, China Yutong provided 1500 electric shuttle buses and is now planning a factory in Qatar to build vehicles tailored to the Middle East market. Little wonder, then, that China’s ambassador to Qatar emphasised that “Chinese elements are everywhere” at the World Cup, likening its presence to “stars in the sky, shining brilliantly.”
This upbeat position was, however, too much for many social media pundits in China who, while not disputing their country’s entrepreneurial drive, were underwhelmed by the absence of a Chinese team from its playing fields. Just as significantly, at a time of widespread COVID-19 lockdowns, Chinese football fans were confronted by travel impediments to Qatar, along with broadcasts featuring thousands of maskless soccer fans enjoying open air and sunshine at the very time Chinese residents were confined indoors. Concurrently, Chinese tourists in Qatar pragmatically followed their favourite European or South American players, but were dismayed that their own country was not on the pitch.
Team China vs Steel Roses
The men’s Chinese soccer team – Team China – has an inglorious history. It first tried to qualify for the World Cup in 1958 but failed to progress. Not until 1982 did China again take part, yet over the next forty years advanced just once. Back in 2002, the Chinese team played three matches in the group stage, losing all games, conceding nine goals, and failing to score. By comparison, the women’s Chinese soccer team – the Steel Roses – has appeared at every World Cup since it was inaugurated in 1991, with China playing host in 1991 and 2007. The national team also figured in placings twice: fourth in 1995 and second in 1999. Yet, according to Siyan Wang, a female correspondent, the women’s game “lacks attention from football fans,” and “in most occasions, it’s only mentioned in an attempt to mock Chinese male footballers.” That said, the Chinese women’s team returned home as 2022 Asian Football Champions, and there are now calls for China to again host the Women’s World Cup, a prospect described by social media pundits as “less humiliating than [following Chinese] men’s football.”
Disappointment about the men’s team is all the more palpable because of the political and economic capital underpinning Chinese soccer on the world stage. In 2011, a year before Xi Jinping ascended to the position of Paramount Leader, he was reported to have three wishes: “For China to qualify for the World Cup, to host a tournament and to eventually win the world championship.” Critics may point out that two of these wishes had already been achieved by the women’s national team. However, like many Chinese soccer fans, Xi overwhelmingly dreamt of glory for the men’s team.
Chinese soccer has a colourful domestic history. Leagues and clubs used to be an extension of state bureaucracy, but privatisation – drawing on the European example – resulted in the rise of the Chinese Super League in 2004. This competition initially garnered plenty of interest, luring overseas players and coaches with handsome salaries. However, the production of local talent stagnated, so much so that the General Office of the State Council, with the personal backing of Xi Jinping, introduced the “Chinese Football Reform and Development Program” in 2015. This has since involved, among many things, massive spending to build soccer pitches – the government constructed 26,000 of them between 2016 and 2020. Another policy plank is to establish 50,000 “special football schools” by 2025. The idea is tantalisingly simple: train millions of young people to play soccer and evolve as a nation to become a soccer powerhouse.
There are, however, challenges. For example, Chinese parents typically prioritise academic education, so specialist training in sports is often seen as a distraction from the pursuit of a white-collar career. Abroad, there are few Chinese soccer players who have established themselves as aspirational role models, while at home the Super League has deteriorated financially, with several clubs unable to continue or are struggling to pay players on time.
Xi’s tripartite dream is, of course, in its early stages and ongoing. A step in that direction would be FIFA accepting China as a future men’s World Cup host, though given new human rights requirements, its eligibility is unlikely to be straightforward. Perhaps, in the end, China may have to be content with its status as an athletic superpower at the Olympic Games, where it was also a host in 2008 and 2022. Olympic medals certainly shine for China, yet its men’s World Cup trophy dream seems bleak.
Daryl Adair (PhD) is Associate Professor of Sport Management at UTS Business School. He is interested in policy and politics in sport, including the role of organisations and mega-events in world affairs. https://profiles.uts.edu.au/daryl.adair
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.