Is FIFA opening the door to a Chinese World Cup?

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(L-R) FIFA Marketing Director Thierry Weil, FIFA Vice-President David Chung, the chairman of Dalian Wanda Group in China Wang Jianlin and the first vice president of the Football Association of the People’s Republic of China Zhang Jian attend an event announcing strategic partnership between Wanda Group and FIFA in Beijing March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Money has no color, religion or nationality. Especially in times of crisis. FIFA reported losses of US$122 million in 2015, its first since 2002, because the corruption scandal that engulfed the organization in the last 11 months. The negative numbers were driven up by legal fees and the loss of five key sponsors—Sony, Emirates Airline, Castrol, Continental and Johnson & Johnson.

A time to say goodbye for some is opportunity for others. FIFA went to elections and the new president, Gianni Infantino, took only a few days before announcing a new sponsorship deal with Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group. According to a Forbes magazine list of The World’s Billionaires, the group’s chairman, Wang Jianlin, is the wealthiest man in China and broke into the top 20 in the world, landing at number 18 with a US$33.3 billion fortune.

Wanda Group operates in a number of sectors including property, retail, sport, hotels, film and stores. It has entered at the highest level of sponsorship rights. Its FIFA deal covers the next four World Cups until 2030.

The financial size of the partnership has not been revealed, but it is believed to be one of the biggest in FIFA’s history. According to The Telegraph, FIFA’s top five sponsors – Coca Cola, Gazprom, Adidas, Visa and Hyundai – paid some US$180 million to the governing body between them in 2015.

Is this a normal sponsorship deal? Or is the aim to help China position itself to organize a World Cup? The President of China, Xi Jinping, declared his ambitions to host and win the World Cup.

Wang Jianlin said he expected other companies to follow Dalian Wanda and join forces with FIFA as China accelerates its ambition to become a global footballing superpower. “If more Chinese brother companies become FIFA sponsors like Wanda, we will join forces to advance the interests of China soccer,” he added at a news conference in Beijing last March.

The Western world is looking at this deal with distrust. It is public knowledge that China wants to organize a World Cup. After Wang Jianlin’s statement, many are afraid that FIFA will deliver the tournament to China because of sponsorship deals.

FIFA’S rules for the bidding process prevent an Asian country being awarded the 2026 tournament, because the 2022 event is being held in Qatar. That would make 2030 – the final year of the Wanda deal – the earliest China could host it.

The connection between Wanda and Philippe Blatter has raised suspicions, because he’s the nephew of the scandal-plagued FIFA president Sepp Blatter, linked to most of corruption problems inside FIFA, during his 17-year tenure. The Dalian Wanda deal was negotiated while the disgraced Blatter was still president. Also, last year, Wanda bought Philippe Blatter’s Infront Sports & Media and appointed him chief executive of a new company Wanda Sports Holding Co.

FIFA already said that younger Blatter played no part in the Wanda negotiations and new president Infantino said the bidding process for World Cup has to be bulletproof after allegations of corruption for Russia 2018, and especially Qatar 2022. He added: “When it comes to the organisation of a World Cup, we’ll have to look into the bidding process for 2026 and then onwards. We’ll see how and what the conditions will be, but the more countries can bid for the World Cup, the better it is. There are other great football events that maybe China can host in future. We’re looking very much at China but also other countries.”

The soccer world is looking very carefully at FIFA’s next move.

Luís Aguilar is a CCTV America guest contributor. He is journalist, sports commentator, and the author of ten books published in Portugal about football. His articles represent his views alone.