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The 2018 Fifa World Cup was a “game-changing” moment for football in China, according to Hengming Yang, chief executive officer of Wanda Sports, one of the event’s main sponsors.

Wanda was the first Chinese brand to partner with Fifa, alongside Adidas, McDonalds, Hyundai and Qatar Airlines, for the 2018 event, which wrapped up on Sunday night with France defeating Croatia in the final.

The Chinese entertainment, sports and property giant was part of a significant Chinese presence at this year’s event which attracted 100,000 Chinese tourists to Russia, record viewing figures and record Chinese sponsors including Wanda, smartphone giant Vivo, electronics brand Hisense, dairy brand Mengniu, as well as technology company Luci and clothing brand Diking. 

China’s commitment to the 2018 World Cup, which is expected to add an extra $835m in ad spend around the event, is a result of the country’s growing fascination with the game, following comments by President Xi Jinping who wants China to become a football superpower by 2050.

Yang told The Drum, “This World Cup has seen China and Chinese football fans embrace the tournament like never before. With 100,000 Chinese fans having travelled to Russia to enjoy the games and millions more following back home on TV, online and social media.

“I think this will be a game-changing moment for the sport in China and it will start to embed a more engaged football culture within the country that will help football really develop from within, both at an elite and grass roots level.

“I think this has gone beyond a time when Chinese fans were just wanting to watch the big games and big players.”

Yang said the increased interest by Chinese audiences was evident in the viewing figures which saw China record 14 of the top 20 largest audiences on TV. The biggest average audience was 43.33 million viewers for Brazil vs Costa Rica game, which recorded the biggest peak and biggest 1-minute reach for the entire group stage and was the first World Cup game to break the 100 million barrier.

While some Chinese sponsors, such as Vivo, have used the World Cup’s global stage to generate awareness of the brand, Yang said Wanda’s aim was to engage with Chinese audiences.

“We have intentionally focused on driving the value from our partnership back to China through the launch, with Fifa, of new Fifa social channels earlier this year on Weibo and WeChat, as well as using our flag bearers initiative to inspire the next generation of footballers in the country.

“One of the primary reasons for us to sign the partnership with Fifa was to inspire the next generation of Chinese footballers. At the 2018 Fifa World Cup we have delivered exactly that, we have given 384 children between the ages of 12 and 17 the opportunity to step onto the pitch at the Fifa World Cup as a Wanda / Fifa Flagbearer.

“Among them are children from deprived areas in China who get to travel abroad for the first time, as well as a group of young Chinese players from Wanda’s ‘Future Football Stars’ programme who have been training at the Atletico de Madrid Academy to improve their game, learn a new culture and develop as individuals. And these children have been seen by a huge number of fans back home when you consider the seismic TV audiences that this World Cup has been generating.”

Yang believes Wanda’s involvement, and that of the other Chinese brands, will help to drive interest and growth in football within China, which is experiencing steady growth thanks to ongoing initiatives such as Adidas’ grassroots football program and increased investment in football in China. 

Yang said, “We are happy to see other Chinese companies follow our footsteps, and we believe it will be good for the sport in China to develop as more and more Chinese companies are standing behind the scene just like we do.”

China’s huge investment and presence in this year’s event may also help the country’s campaign to host a World Cup in the near future, something President Xi has also expressed a desire to achieve.

“That is not a decision for us,” said Yang. “But if it happened, as a Chinese sports company we would be happy to see China have the opportunity to host such a top sports event. From a business perspective, we would do our best to support it if it happened."