China's Richest Man Pledges Millions to Scandal-Scarred FIFA

  • Wang Jianlin's Wanda Group has ties to Blatter's nephew
  • President Xi Jinping wants China to be a global soccer power

China’s Dalian Wanda Group Co. will put hundreds of millions of dollars behind FIFA, becoming the first major sponsor for the soccer body since a criminal corruption scandal overwhelmed the organization and led to the ouster of longtime president Joseph “Sepp” Blatter.

Owned by China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, the Chinese conglomerate will join FIFA sponsors Adidas AG, Coca-Cola Co., Gazprom, Hyundai Motor Co. and Visa Inc., which together paid $180 million to the organization in 2015. Like other wealthy Chinese, Wang has been aggressively investing in soccer since President Xi Jinping made the sport a national priority last year.

In addition to taking a 20 percent stake in Atletico Madrid last year, Wanda also bought Infront Sports & Media AG, a sports marketing company that does millions of dollars worth of business with FIFA. Infront is run by Philippe Blatter, nephew of Sepp, and brought Wang into Blatter’s circle at precisely a moment when many moneyed allies were backing away.

The younger Blatter was at FIFA headquarters in Zurich Friday, where Wang signed a contract in the office of the organization’s new president, Gianni Infantino. No one from the Chinese company appeared at a news conference about the deal, possibly FIFA’s biggest sponsorship agreement. Infantino said all the correct due diligence was carried out to ensure there were no conflicts of interest.

“Under these circumstances it’s even more important to do the right thing,” Infantino said.

Wang’s established ties to FIFA suggest the deal, which runs through 2030, has been in the works for months, long before Infantino was elected and a slate of good-governance reforms were passed in February. The investment may be part of China’s ambition to secure rights to stage the World Cup for the first time. Under FIFA regulations the earliest China could host the tournament would be 2030.

“The more countries that can bid for the World Cup the better it is,” Infantino said, responding to a question from a reporter for China’s state-run CCTV on whether the deal improved the country’s chances of hosting the event.

Scandal Costs

The influx of cash is welcome: FIFA said Thursday that costs associated with the scandal, including legal fees, led to a loss of $122 million in 2015, the group’s first year in the red since 2002.

FIFA’s coffers are likely to be boosted further in the coming weeks, with Infantino saying that further deals were “on the horizon.”

On Thursday, FIFA revised its revenue target for the four year-cycle that concludes with the 2018 World Cup in Russia to $5.6 billion from $5 billion. The organization, which the U.S. Attorney General has characterized as a victim in the whole affair, is seeking at least $28 million in restitution from the named defendants.

Also Thursday, Swiss prosecutors said they have opened a case against Jerome Valcke, the longtime secretary general who was banned from soccer along with Blatter, on suspicion of criminal mismanagement.

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