The 21st World Cup starts tomorrow with the host nation playing against Saudi Arabia. Asian teams have little chance of winning, but Asian businesses are swooping up sponsorship deals. Nike denies Iran boots as a result of Trump’s sanctions. Child labour used in making World Cup goods emerges as an issue.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – The twenty-first edition of the World Cup starts tomorrow at 6 pm (local time) in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium with a match between Russia, the host country, and Saudi Arabia. The stadium will also host the final match on 15 July.
In all, 32 teams will be competing, including five affiliated with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC): Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan and non-Asian Australia.
The schedule includes 64 matches in 12 different stadiums in 11 Russian cities. The Moscow stadium, which can hold 83,000 people, was upgraded between 2014 and 2017 at a cost of US$ 600 million.
Jihadi terrorism has cast its shadow over the sporting event with the Islamic State group pledging to carry out attacks venues as well as famous footballers like Messi and Neymar.
Russian authorities in fact fear both coordinated actions and isolated incidents by lone wolves or local extremists from Chechnya or former Soviet Central Asia. For this reason, Russian law enforcement is on maximum alert and security a top priority.
No one expect an Asian team to win since the top ranked, Iran, is in Group B with ranked Spain and Portugal.
Saudi Arabia and South Korea’s ambitions are also limited. It is doubtful that the latter will be able to repeat its 2002 exploit when it co-hosted the Cup with Japan and reached the semi-final stage.
Japan might have some hope to get one of the two spots for the second round since it is in the most balanced group with Poland, Senegal and Colombia.
Despite all the money in Asia, from China to Saudi Arabia, Asia has not yet been able to produce a team able to compete with Europe and South America.
The continent has however a dismal record: that of illegal betting, which, each year, reaches US$ 400 billion (80 per cent of the world’s total).
The World Cup is bound to increase the level of betting, so much so that the authorities in mainland China, Macao, Hong Kong and South Korea have sounded the alarm.
In Hong Kong, illegal World Cup bets could hit the US$ 68 billion mark, with another US$ 79 billion in South Korea and US$ 6.5 in Singapore.
Much of this money, experts say, is expected to go through the Philippines, which is a heaven for illegal operators who can now use crypto-currencies and web applications such as WeChat (in Chinese).
Asian companies have boosted World Cup-related sponsorship business. However, for FIFA, the governing body of international football, the value of World Cup 2018 sponsorships has gone from US$ 1.63 billion four years ago to US$ 1.45 billion this year.
Still, more Asian investors have come in, especially from China, led by the giant Wanda Group, one of the seven official partners along with veterans like Coca Cola and Adidas (which has always provided the balls), Russia’s Gazprom, Qatar Airways, Visa and Hyundai/Kia.
Overall, Asian companies are growing in importance and represent the largest group in Russia 2018, with 39 per cent of sponsorship contracts.
Football is also becoming more popular among Asian leaders (Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to be a big fan) and ordinary people.
According to the Nielsen Media Research, in China interest in football has increased from 27 per cent in 2013 to 32 per cent in 2017 in urban areas. And 75 per cent of fans are under the age of 34.
For China, although its team did not make it to the World Cup, the event is useful to boost economic ties and trade with Russia and prepare the ground for a bid to host the World Cup in 2030 or 2034.
Such a plan includes increasing the number of football fields from 11,000 in 2015 to 70,000 by 2020. The more optimistic think that China could become a football powerhouse by 2050, as it did in other sports.
The link between football, business and international politics came to the fore recently over a row between Iran and one of the main sponsors, US sportswear giant Nike.
The Oregon-based multinational refused to supply the Iranian team with boots following the decision of US President Donald Trump to cancel the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and impose the harshest sanctions in history.
The coach of the Iranian team and Iran’s national football federation officially protested with FIFA, complaining that this negatively affect players.
In Iran, some people reacted with a campaign to boycott the brand, whose products, despite sanctions, are widely available in the Middle Eastern country.
In a widely-shared video, an Iranian man who describes himself as a dentist threw a pair of Nike shoes in a bin, saying the company’s decision was “an insult to my people and all football lovers”.
Nike and Adidas (Nike’s main German competitor) have also made the headlines after reports surfaced about exploited workers in Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, making their products.
Activists and human rights associations have repeatedly called for both sportswear giants to respect minimum wage rules and provide proper working conditions.
Football is a very popular sport, t-shirts and boots are the object of the desire of many an enthusiast, but too often this happens in spite of the pain and exploitation of many others. (DS)