June 22, 2014 1:00 pm JST

World Cup feels China's strong presence despite its absence from pitch

GAKU SHIMADA, Nikkei staff writer

Bars in Beijing's Sanlitun nightlife district have put up large displays on the street to show World Cup matches. Scores of young Chinese watch the games being played in Brazil after midnight, China time.

BEIJING -- China is taking part in the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Brazil as a high-profile player, even though its national team is not competing in the tournament.

     A bevy of Chinese companies are serving as the event's official corporate sponsors and suppliers, symbolizing the growing economic power of a country whose leader is an avid soccer fan.

     China may not be a global football powerhouse, but it has a vibrant professional soccer league composed of 16 teams. Soccer is arguably the most popular sport among the country's 1.3 billion population.

     Since this year's World Cup kicked off on June 12, the sports channels of China Central Television, the predominant state television broadcaster in the country, have been logging high audience ratings.

     Since the end of May, electric appliance mass retailers in China have been promoting the latest TVs in "special World Cup sales" at their stores and on their websites.

     In Beijing's Sanlitun, the capital's oldest and most famous nightlife district, where bars line up shoulder-to-shoulder for blocks, many drinking places have put up signs saying, "You can watch World Cup matches here." Most World Cup matches this year take place when it is past midnight in China. Young Chinese swarm into the alleys in the district in the middle of the night to go wild over battles on the pitch being fought at the other side of the globe.

     Chinese beer makers are expecting a 10% rise in their beer production this year due to a spike in consumption during the event.

"Sick" days, soccer nights

"Have you got days off?" is the currently popular greeting among young Chinese. A host of e-commerce sites are offering fake sick notes for 10-300 yuan ($1.6-48.1) to help people claim sick leave from their jobs to watch the games in Brazil. Sales of such phony doctors' notes and hospital documents vouching for illness or injury have been strong even though medical experts have been warning that they are easily detected and useless.

     Chinese companies are playing a sizable role in the commercial side of the World Cup. Among them is Xiecheng Industry in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, which has the right to manufacture and sell products featuring the 2014 World Cup mascot Fuleco. It is the first Chinese company to win the bidding for exclusive rights to manufacture and sell World Cup mascot goods.

     The company has reaped hefty profits from the contract with FIFA. Global sales of its Fuleco products surpassed its goal even before the event opened, according to the firm.

     Leading Chinese solar battery maker Yingli Green Energy has been chosen as one of the eight top World Cup sponsors along with such global giants as McDonald's. The Yingli logos in Chinese and English were repeatedly displayed on pitch-side advertising boards during the opening match between Brazil and Croatia.

     Besides the World Cup, another factor behind the current soccer mania in China is Xi Jinping, the country's president.
 Xi, who came to power in 2013, is known as a serious football aficionado. Xi likes spending hours after a day's work watching midnight TV football programs, according to Peng Liyuan, the wife of the Communist Party supreme leader. Xi is scheduled to watch the World Cup final on June 13 at the stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

     The official purpose of Xi's visit to Brazil is to attend the BRICS summit on July 15-16 in Fortaleza, Brazil, with the leaders of five major emerging countries, including Russia, India and South Africa as well as Brazil and China.

     Brazil, which hosts the conference, originally proposed to hold the summit around April, according to diplomatic sources. But the date was pushed back to immediately after the World Cup as Xi expressed his desire to watch the final.

     Xi's long-cherished dream is to bring a World Cup to China and watch the Chinese national team win the title. Xi has been putting pressure on China's soccer community to make efforts to realize this vision.

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