Sport, Talking Point

The real World Cup winner?

Why China has emerged as the economic victor of Qatar’s tournament


Built by the Chinese: fans gather outside Qatar’s Lusail Stadium where the World Cup final will be held

The host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were decided at the now infamous FIFA Congress in December 2010 (for gripping details on the gathering see the recently released Netflix documentary FIFA Uncovered).

Outsiders were dumbfounded when the names of Russia and Qatar emerged as winners of the bids for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, beating favourites Britain and the US, both of which had vastly superior technical bids.

According to the documentary, the French were also winners from the unexpected decision. Massive investment from Qatar a year later would transform Parisian club PSG into one of the most competitive in Europe, for instance. France would go on to win the 2018 tournament too, although Michel Platini, French football legend and a former UEFA president, was later caught up in an investigation into alleged corruption relating to UEFA’s support for Qatar’s bid for 2022.

That tournament was underway as WiC went to press (it is usually held in the summer, not late November and December).

Amid all the gossip about dealmaking between football’s leading nations – as well as their ongoing obsession about winning the tournament – there is at least one notable absentee, of course. China failed to qualify for the finals once again, which is pretty much the default position for its men’s national team (the Chinese have qualified for the tournament’s final stages only once, back in 2002).

And yet there is an alternative view that the Chinese can count on success of sorts at the World Cup finals, including their emergence as one of the key winners from the 2018 tournament in Russia.

“Apart from our football team, basically everything else Chinese has arrived in Moscow,” a popular presenter on the national broadcaster CCTV quipped four years ago from the Russian capital. At the time companies from China were contributing more than those of any other country to make sure Vladimir Putin’s World Cup was a commercial success (see WiC414). And in Qatar this year, the same TV anchor has been tweeting some very similar remarks.

How is China represented at these World Cup finals?

The Russians were said to have spent more on hosting the World Cup four years ago than any previous tournament. Yet the consensus is that they were parsimonious in comparison to the Qataris, who have splashed more than $200 billion this time around. If accurate, that is about 15 times what Russia spent four years ago – and more than the previous 12 World Cup finals combined, in fact.

When Qatar was confirmed as the host nation in 2010, the Lusail Stadium – where the final will be held – didn’t exist nor did any of the city around it. Qatar’s finance minister once admitted that the Gulf country was spending as much as $500 million a week on infrastructure projects to prepare for the world’s biggest sporting event. And a major chunk of the work has gone to contractors from China. The Lusail Stadium, for instance, was built by China Railway Construction Corp (CRCC), a state-owned firm which counts the People’s Liberation Army’s railway corps as its predecessor entity.

It’s the first time a Chinese firm had won the bid to build the main World Cup venue and the contract for the 80,000-seat stadium was estimated to be worth about $767 million, Xinhua reported in 2016. CRCC was said to have outbid 10 rivals from nine other countries to win the construction deal.

The bowl-shaped stadium is one of the more unusual additions to the long list of projects championed under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), for which Qatar signed up as a partner in 2014. Qatar has also aligned its National Vision 2030 (QNV 2030), a national-level plan for infrastructure investment, with China’s BRI too.

That means more business for Chinese firms such as CRCC. “The [Lusail Stadium] project has shown an important referential significance for China to continuously promote the BRI,” CRCC’s president Zhuo Lei told China Daily this week. “It will become another golden namecard for Chinese enterprises that have successfully operated abroad.”

Likewise Gezhouba Group was involved in one of the biggest hydropower projects in Qatar and companies such as Sany and Zoomlion have been providing heavy-duty equipment for the World Cup construction binge. The 800-megawatt Al Kharsaah photovoltaic power station, the biggest of its kind in Qatar, started operations last month with Power Construction Corp of China the main contractor.

Despite all the infrastructure investment, the Qatar government insists that is hosting the first-ever ‘carbon neutral’ World Cup by keeping emissions low and removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as the tournament produces by investing in projects that capture greenhouse gases. Plenty of environmental campaigners query whether that’s accurate. But at least one of the match venues is set to be recycled: the Ras Abu Aboud Stadium, built by Guangdong-based marine logistics specialist CIMC. The seven-storey, 40,000-seat venue has been created from 974 shipping containers and the tournament organisers claim that the stadium will be dismantled after the World Cup, either to be assembled elsewhere or with the containers returned for use in more typical circumstances.

Any other ‘Made in China’ contribution to the finals?

“Chinese elements are like stars lighting up Qatar,” Zhou Jian, the country’s ambassador to Qatar marvelled recently on his Twitter account. “From infrastructure to telecommunications, from new energy business to solar power plants, from match suppliers to souvenirs, ‘made in China’ can be found everywhere in Qatar.”

And while Chinese football fans don’t have much to talk about as far as their national team is concerned, there has been some debate about China’s commercial interests in Qatar, as well as how the tournament is showcasing the industrial skills of its companies, the Global Times said.

That’s also apparent in the progress of Chinese bus maker Yutong, the newspaper add, which has manufactured more than 1,500 of the buses travelling the streets of Qatar, including 888 electric vehicles shuttling officials, journalists and fans around the tournament venues. Electrical appliance maker Gree has provided 40,000 air conditioners, while rival Midea has installed AC units at 100 security check points around the city.

Factory owners in production centres in Guangdong and Zhejiang have been celebrating a flurry of World Cup orders as well. In one example, nearly 200 categories of World Cup products were made in Guangdong’s Dongguan, the local government said. These ranged from whistles to souvenirs and replica trophies. Customs data suggests that manufacturers in Guangdong’s Heyuan also exported 3.28 million football shirts and 4.65 million pairs of football boots between January and October, which is 15% higher than the same period last year – presumably helped by excitement around the World Cup.

The tournament has also given a boost to Yiwu, a merchandise trading hub further north in the Yangtze River Delta. Factory activity there is tracked in the so-called ‘Yiwu Index’, which is said to be a leading indicator on global affairs (based on the orders of T-shirts and flags, Yiwu bosses forecast in 2020 that Donald Trump would win re-election as US president five months before the vote took place, which turned out to be one of their dud predictions).

Factories in the city accounted for nearly 70% of the market share of consumer items developed for the Qatar World Cup, including sales of a million soccer balls, the Yiwu Sports Goods Association claimed.

How about the official sponsors?

Lenovo was the first Chinese brand to partner with an international sporting event at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, China News Weekly recalled. Other consumer brands have followed in its wake, with seven Chinese firms, led by the property conglomerate Wanda, signing up with FIFA as official sponsors in Russia four years ago.

This time in Qatar, only four have invested in sponsorships, including home appliances maker Hisense, dairy firm Mengniu and smartphone brand Vivo. The Chinese sponsors still contributed nearly $1.4 billion in sponsorship income, however, more than four years ago, and making Chinese firms the biggest sponsor nation (ahead of the US in second).

Some of the strategies of the Chinese companies advertising at the finals have left fans flummoxed, however.

Some netizens in  China were puzzled by the Chinese characters on advertising hoardings during this week’s matches (see photo on page 5), for instance, which were publicising ‘Wanda Wenlu’, the ‘cultural-tourism’ unit of Wanda. Most onlookers wondered why Wanda would not put the name of a more appropriate unit like Wanda Sport at pitchside to the world’s most-watched sporting event. That entity was created after Wanda’s acquisition of Infront Sports in 2015, whose chief executive at the time was the nephew of Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s former president.

The Chinese conglomerate also chose not to promote its property management unit, which is reportedly trying to go public in Hong Kong. Instead, the group has given the exposure to Wanda Wenlu, even after offloading most of its ‘cultural-tourism’ property projects to rival Sunac in a deal in 2017.

The strategy saw local analysts second-guessing Wanda’s next move, with speculation that a major corporate restructuring could be imminent in a bid to beef up the prospects at Wanda Wenlu. That unit could theoretically even incorporate Wanda’s sports businesses, which could be why the company wants to give it the limelight.

In recent years, Wanda has also positioned itself as a long-term investor in the wellbeing of Chinese football, including a commitment to the sport from a grassroots level. As part of the deal when Wanda became a FIFA sponsor, it earned the rights to pick the mascots to carry FIFA’s flag at World Cup events, for instance. In Russia the company selected six young students from Danzhai, a poverty-stricken county in Guizhou for the opening match. And Wanda has done the same in Qatar, although this time the young Chinese flag-carriers were said to have been training at the youth academy of Atlético Madrid, a Spanish football club that Wanda invested in a few years ago.

Douyin, the company that created TikTok, is also set to make a splash in the online video sector after becoming another of the bigger spenders at the finals. It reportedly paid Rmb1 billion ($132 million) on the livestreaming rights to show World Cup footage as part of a sub-agreement secured with state broadcaster CCTV.

The deal is likely to generate an enormous amount of traffic for the popular video app and the move means Douyin has signposted its clearest intention to expand out of short-video into fuller-form broadcasting, Jiemian, a news portal, reported.

And the panda in the room…

The World Cup has also offered opportunities to celebrate China’s diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar. Chinese firms’ role in preparing for the tournament came at a time when ties between Qatar and some its neighbours in the Gulf were showing signs of fraying. Just a few days ahead of the tournament, China scored another success in deepening ties with the announcement that state energy giant Sinopec had signed a 27-year agreement to purchase four million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar annually. At $60 billion the deal is being promoted as the largest contract ever signed by China for LNG supply.

And in another much-heralded piece of diplomatic outreach, Qatar has even welcomed the arrival from China of two giant pandas. They will stay in Qatar for 15 years, a lot longer than the footballers.

A further strand in China’s diplomatic overtures to the Middle East is also expected soon: the widely touted but as yet unconfirmed visit of Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, to Saudi Arabia.

Citing diplomats from the Saudi kingdom, international media outlets have reported that Xi will visit Riyadh next month. Might he make a sidetrip to Doha on his tour as well? Xi, who has cultivated a reputation as a football fan, might even find a moment to watch the tournament’s final on December 18 – in the Chinese-built stadium, of course.

In what has otherwise been a big win for China Inc, perhaps the sole downside of the tournament for Xi are the televised images appearing on Chinese TV screens of the ‘normality’ of it all: thousands of international fans have been seen unmasked and enjoying themselves in stadiums – a stark contrast to the zero-Covid containment measures in China itself.

The BBC reports this had led to a wave of Chinese social media commentators asking “is the World Cup in Qatar happening on another planet?”

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