BEIJING (Reuters) - Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, said FIFA’s corruption scandal was an opportunity for big Chinese companies to further the country’s lofty footballing ambitions by undertaking sponsorship deals with the global governing body.
Wang’s Dalian Wanda Group, China’s biggest commercial property developer and an active buyer of global entertainment and sports companies, became the first Chinese top level sponsor of FIFA last week.
At a news conference in Beijing on Monday, the 61-year-old multi-billionaire said he expected other companies to follow suit to help drive China’s ambition to become a soccer superpower.
“Two or three years ago, Chinese and Asian companies probably wouldn’t even have had a chance to sponsor FIFA even if we wanted to. But because some western companies dropped out, we got the opportunity,” he said.
“To my knowledge, another Chinese company will become a FIFA top sponsor soon. If there are no surprises, there will be three Chinese top-level sponsors by the end of the year.
“If more Chinese brother companies become FIFA sponsors like Wanda, we will join forces to advance the interests of China soccer,” he added.
Led by China’s President Xi Jinping, an avid soccer fan, China has embraced the goal of shedding decades of corruption and underperformance to become a major power in the game, aiming first to host the World Cup and then ultimately win it.
The country aims to grow its sports market to 5 trillion yuan ($782 billion) by 2025, about a five-fold leap from its current size, and soccer will play a large part.
China’s ambitions were highlighted in a high-profile investment, its biggest in the sport overseas, last December when a consortium led by state-backed China Media Capital took a $400 million stake in the owner of Manchester City.
FIFA’s new president Gianni Infantino first announced the 15-year sponsorship deal with Dalian Wanda in Zurich on Friday. A source close to the deal said the sponsorship from Wanda would be worth “hundreds of millions of dollars”.
“We are lending them a hand during their toughest period,” Wang told Reuters after Monday’s press conference.
FIFA has been thrown into turmoil over the last year with criminal investigations underway into the sport in the United States, where several dozen former soccer officials have been indicted, and Switzerland.
It has struggled to find new sponsors since the current crisis erupted and has failed to replace top-tier partners Sony and Emirates after their deals expired at the end of 2014.
Wang, whose backing helped the Dalian club to four Chinese league titles from 1994 to 1999, said he had been undeterred by the scandal.
“This sponsorship is totally worthwhile because I believe that in the future the soccer industry in China and Asia will become the same as in Europe,” he said.
“No matter what happened at FIFA, no matter who is FIFA president, and no matter what reforms take place.”
Wanda bought a 20 percent stake in Spanish club Atletico Madrid as well as Swiss sports marketing company Infront Sports & Media AG last year.
Philippe Blatter, nephew of disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter and the former chief executive of Infront, is now chief executive of its subsidiary Wanda Sports Holding.
Wang’s conglomerate also extends to sports beyond soccer. Wanda in August bought the organization which runs the Ironman Triathlon races for $650 million.
Reporting by Shu Zhang and Clare Jim, editing by Nick Mulvenney and John O'Brien