More than ever, and without a team, it is China's World Cup
MOSCOW (AP) — Outside Moscow's giant Luzhniki Stadium, in a sea of Mexican and German fans frothing with World Cup pre-game fervor, four Chinese football enthusiasts huddled together and agonized: Should they sell their tickets?
Dressed for the sold-out match in a Die Mannschaft jersey, 34-year-old primary school worker Bian Jitao argued that he'd regret not seeing the world champion Germans start their title defense against El Tri.
The other three wanted to cash in. Seeing Lionel Messi's Argentina play the previous day had been their highlight. Mexican fans were offering thick wads of notes. Back and forth, the four debated: Money or match?
Money, eventually, won. Two Mexicans handed over the equivalent of $2,200 in dollars, euros and rubles. The Chinese then headed off to a Moscow bar to watch Mexico beat Germany 1-0 on television.
The scene neatly told the broader story of this World Cup: Despite having no team at the showcase tournament, China is making its presence felt as never before. China's economic clout, its surging influence in the global game and its corridors of power, and tens of thousands of football-knowledgeable, passionate , and well-heeled fans traveling from all over China to Russia are lending a strong Chinese feel to the World Cup, even though the national team has qualified for the tournament only once, in 2002. Corporate China also is using the mega-event as a stepping stone to conquer new markets.
Ambitious Chinese corporations that partnered with FIFA in the wake of the tournament organizer's leadership-shaking corruption scandals, when some other sponsors walked away, are being repaid with global visibility. Illuminated signs at the 64 matches are tattooing Chinese names into the subconscious of the world's consumers. Most visible: Property conglomerate Wanda, the first Chinese firm to sign as a top-tier FIFA partner , in 2016, and smartphone manufacturer Vivo, signed last year for this and the next World Cup. Chinese electronics maker Hisense, also signed last year , is displayed when match scores are shown on TV. Pitch-side boards also flash up yoghurt adverts, in Chinese, for dairy company Mengniu, signed in December .
"They've realized that the world is their oyster," FIFA's chief commercial officer, Philippe Le Floc'h, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "China is the biggest population in the world, it's a massive economy. They have some very, very good companies who are eager to have a presence abroad and I think it was just a nice fit. We are providing the best platform for them to push and show their competence and their products."
Also important: The governing body's Chinese backers seemingly have zero qualms about American and Swiss corruption and bribery investigations that hastened the end of Sepp Blatter's 17-year reign as FIFA president and saw Gianni Infantino elected in his place in 2016.
"A terrible phase for FIFA," said Le Floc'h. "We're not proud of it."
Appointed in 2016 as part of Infantino's new team, Le Floc'h added, however, that in courting new sponsors, "Nobody told us 'Oh, no, we don't want to work with you because you are too toxic.'"
From being almost invisible at previous tournaments, Chinese fans have become impossible to miss at Russian stadiums. The world-shaking growth of China's economy, second in size now only to that of the United States, means that jetting off for a packaged week of sought-after matches with good seats has become affordable for plenty of Chinese enthusiasts of the game.
While many fans stayed away from other countries that, like China, failed to qualify, Chinese fans have come in droves to see their favorite stars from Europe's top leagues. Surging from 7,400 at the 2014 World Cup and 3,300 in 2010, the more than 40,000 tickets allocated to Chinese fans this time put China in the top-10 countries for sales.
The likes of 22-year-old Xu Wenbo have banked World Cup memories for a lifetime.
On his first-ever voyage outside China, the student and part-time football coach from central Henan province got to see Messi, his football hero, play in Argentina's 1-1 opening-match draw with Iceland. Xu traveled with a group of fans who paid 38,000 yuan ($5,800) each for a two-game package or 43,000 yuan ($6,600) for four games and feasted on sausages and beer while watching other matches on TV in a Moscow restaurant.
"Seeing the kickoff of Argentina against Iceland live in the stadium was so exciting I wanted to cry," Xu said. "I saw many Argentina fans dancing and singing. Even though I don't speak their language, I wore an Argentina jersey, and jumped and shouted with them. It was amazing. Unforgettable."
The next big ambitions for Chinese fans: Having their own team to cheer for at future tournaments and a World Cup in China. Both prospects are becoming more likely as China sinks resources into the game , encouraged by football-fan President Xi Jinping . With Qatar hosting in 2022 and a joint US-Canada-Mexico tournament in 2026, the earliest possibility for China would be 2030.
"It's a legitimate ambition for a country like China to be willing to host a World Cup at some point," Le Floc'h said. "It's great that President Xi likes football, it's fantastic. But the Chinese population loves football. Anywhere you go in China you see people playing around. Football has picked up. Is it just a fashion? I don't think so. There's really a movement."
Bian, the fan who succumbed to peer pressure in reluctantly selling his Germany vs. Mexico ticket, grew misty eyed just imagining a China World Cup.
"If that day comes, I'll take my kids and family," he said. "No matter how expensive, I'll definitely get tickets. Seriously, it would be so exciting."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester