Experiencing the World Cup from inside China

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: June 28, 2018

Travelling to Shanghai in the middle of a World Cup didn’t seem like a good idea; after all, spending a day travelling there and another day travelling back meant that I missed seven matches. This predicament worsened when I discovered that at least two of the vital final group phase games kicked-off each day in the middle of the night, Chinese time. Not since USA 94 have I needed to set my alarm to find out World Cup scores. However, among such not insignificant details of my trip lay some important lessons for westerners who are still trying to understand China’s football revolution. Here are my observations on what I saw and what I was thinking:


When the World Cup is finally staged in China, scheduling issues are likely to mean that everyone west of Beijing will have to adapt to a different way of engaging with football’s biggest global event. If television still exists by then, western viewers in particular will have to prepare for some very late nights.At the same time, if football is to socio-culturally embed itself in China then it will need to address scheduling issues too, not least in creating a Chinese appetite for World Cup football – it really doesn’t help when games are being played in the middle of the night. Spain’s La Liga has already responded to this issue by switching the start-time of some of its games, to suit East Asian audiences. However, with the balance of power in world football shifting east, not least because of Chinese sponsorship money flooding into FIFA, then kick-off times are likely to become a front-line in the battle for football’s future. One wonders too how long it will be before someone proposes staging World Cup qualifying games in China between, say, Germany and the Netherlands.


Televised World Cup football in China appears to exist in something of a downbeat ghetto. Instead of occupying a primetime spot on a main free-to-air TV channel, its late night outings were restricted to CCTV5 (channel 30 on my hotel room remote control). The signal was poor, and matches often disappeared from my screen – sometimes for up to two minutes (which was particularly unhelpful during England’s game against Panama). I could have watched matches, like many other Europeans, in a bar somewhere. The standard offer was drinks for half-price, to draw customers in. Excessive alcohol consumption may have accounted for the rather nationalistic mood of these screenings, which seemed to be less about football than about socialising with like-minded people from back home and asserting one’s national identity with them on foreign soil. There’s  something in this for diaspora marketers, though for the France v Denmark game, which was shown at Paris Saint Germain’s new Shanghai theme park, very few of the more than 20,000 French local residents turned-up to watch.


If the Chinese population’s interest in television is fading fast, then its hunger for print media is already dead – it has ceased to be. Everywhere I go in the world, I try to buy a football magazine. For nearly three decades, this has generally proved to be very easy. However in Shanghai, it was impossible; I know the magazines are there somewhere (I bought copies of football magazines last summer in Beijing), but it isn’t easy to locate or buy them. In China, I am the exception: few people seem to want print anymore. Why buy a magazine or newspaper when you can get information free via digital and social media? China is gripped by digital delirium, and as a consequence mobile devices are everywhere, all the  time, being used by everyone, for everything. It’s often difficult to find a street in which there isn’t a shop selling phone covers or a selfie booth that you can pose in. The importance of selfies in China cannot be overestimated; indeed, spending money to look your best for a selfie is an important form of identity creation and a basis for communicating status. Yet it wasn’t evident that such an important medium is attracting football’s attention. Perhaps some FIFA branded selfie booths in the centre of Shanghai would have helped.


With a growing number of Chinese companies now signed-up to and working with FIFA, I somehow expected an activation blitz to be taking place in China. After all, prior to my trip some commentators in Europe had explained how the likes of Wanda were using their sponsorships to target Chinese domestic consumers rather than international audiences. Whatever their words were supposed to have meant, to my European eyes it seemed to be more a case of ‘blink and you will miss it [the activation and targeting]’. Admittedly there was some television advertising by FIFA’s Chinese partners, and I personally ate a pot of Mengniu yoghurt (you should know this brand by now, right?). My morning dairy intake was indeed influenced by Mengniu’s sponsorship of the World Cup, especially as I am unware of any other Chinese dairy brands. So clearly, sponsorship works: I recalled the brand, associated it with football, and used this as the basis for consuming the brand’s products. However, I observed more evidence of other brands (either deliberately or accidentally) ambushing the World Cup than I did of official sponsors Hisense and Vivo making the most of their FIFA deals. As for Wanda, one word: invisible. This suggests that the company is possibly engaged in sponsoring the World Cup for reasons other than charming Chinese retail consumers. Perhaps instead, Wang Jianlin’s company remains the political totem for China’s influence inside FIFA?

Teams, shirts and players

The population of Shanghai is estimated to be around 23 million people. As such, I expected to see a fine array of replica shirts on display as I walked Shanghai’s streets and rode its mind-boggling metro system. And the result of my participant observation? I saw one shirt – Portugal, predictably with Cristiano Ronaldo printed on the back. For those Europeans who still think that the Chinese are football crazy, thing again (they certainly haven’t fallen in love with replica shirts in the same way as, for example, the Brazilians or English). Ronaldo caught my eye several times (advertising cars and men’s cosmetics), as did Neymar (who was most visible when trying to sell mobile phones). However, as I was leaving China, a new hero, heart-throb but otherwise normal London bloke was getting heavy coverage across the country: Harry Kane. It’s hard to imagine that the Tottenham Hotspur player’s mantra will ever become ‘sex sells’, though on current evidence he might have to consider removing his shirt in a Ronaldo-esque way whenever he scores. Brand Kane has just launched in China!!!


China’s urban population loves to shop, and with Shanghai as the country’s financial centre the city is therefore home to the biggest concentration of malls I have possibly ever seen. And they are full, from 10am to 10pm; surely there are only so many Supreme, Champion and Bathing Ape t-shirts a person can buy? Many malls typically have a ‘sports floor’, housing brands ranging from western staples (such as Nike and Adidas) to local brands (like Anta and Li Ning). There are generally no football club shops, although the NBA seems to have built-up a decent chain of retail outlets across the country. I was particularly interested in visiting a Nike store, as the company is contracted to supply the Chinese Super League and national teams. However, this proved to be a rather preconceived western notion: the first Nike store (spread across three floors) I visited was a basketball only zone; the next was again targeted a single sport, this time running; the third was more promising – there was a Nigeria shirt in the window. This was nevertheless misleading, as the shirt was helping to showcase an urban culture store that otherwise contained nothing of direct relevance to football. In the end, I asked a store assistant about where to buy a shirt and got the reply ‘go to a football stadium’. My Chinese isn’t good enough to have enabled me to retort ‘so why don’t I have to go to a basketball court to buy a vest?’ N.B. in China, basketball and running seem to trump football almost every time.




About Professor Simon Chadwick

Simon is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University in Manchester (UK), where he is also a Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Founding Co-Director of the China Soccer Observatory and a Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham (UK). He has worked in football across the world, for various organisations including companies, federations, and governments. He tweets via @Prof_Chadwick