The World Cup final between France and Croatia will be an all-European affair, but it will kick off at a decidedly non-European time.
Fans in Paris and Zagreb, long-accustomed to watching the world’s biggest soccer matches in prime time, will instead have to flip on their televisions for a 5 p.m. start. The match begins at 6 p.m. in Moscow and 11 a.m. on the East Coast of the United States because, after decades of prioritizing Western Europe, FIFA’s compass has begun to shift east in recent years.
Sponsorships from Chinese companies increasingly fund world soccer’s governing body, and as the Chinese government makes a strong push to become a soccer power, its citizens finally won’t have to stay up all night to watch a World Cup final. In 2014, the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro kicked off at 3 a.m. in Beijing and 4 a.m. in Tokyo. Sunday’s match starts at 11 p.m. in Beijing, and midnight in Tokyo.
With the exception of the 2002 World Cup, which took place in Japan and South Korea — the last 12 World Cups all began at midnight or later in Beijing, even though it is in the world’s most populated time zone. Chinese residents could have watched in black and white at 10 p.m. as England won the 1966 World Cup on home soil. Except the World Cup wasn’t shown in China back then.
FIFA spokesman Fabrice Jouhaud said the kickoff time for Sunday’s final was set three years ago in cooperation “with a range of stakeholders.” Jouhaud said organizers considered “a number of aspects such as the global broadcast market and feasibility for the fans.” He didn’t say how large of a consideration the Asian market was.
FIFA isn’t the only soccer governing body setting start times with Asia in mind. La Liga, the Spanish league, is already holding matches in earlier time slots to attract Asian viewers, including the biggest domestic match in club soccer, the Clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Inter Milan’s former chairman has said Serie A should start matches earlier, and the Premier League has considered selling a package of early games that would appeal to Asia. Top clubs such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have also opened commercial offices in China.
Chinese television ratings for the World Cup are not available yet, but viewership of soccer in China is booming.
While European clubs desperately seek new fans in Asia to watch their games and buy their jerseys, Chinese companies are trying to increase their profile in the West through soccer. FIFA has not signed a new Western sponsor since 2011, as brands fled in the wake of a bribery and corruption scandal and the guilty pleas of a number of top FIFA executives.
Yet FIFA will generate $1.65 billion from World Cup sponsorships, 14 percent more than it had projected, in large part because of Chinese firms. Seven of the 20 official World Cup sponsors are Chinese companies, including property developer Wanda Group, which signed on as a FIFA partner, the highest level of sponsorship.
They are part of a major Chinese government-backed investment in soccer. The country has only qualified for one men’s World Cup but wants to try to win the tournament one day. Domestic Chinese clubs are buying soccer stars, and Chinese citizens and companies are buying European clubs, such as Inter Milan, Espanyol and Aston Villa, and own large stakes in Atlético Madrid, Manchester City and Lyon.
Despite China not coming particularly close to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, the Chinese presence at the World Cup is impossible to miss. Chinese children are on-field flag bearers. Advertisements for Chinese companies light up the boards ringing the pitches, and more than 40,000 fans from China bought tickets to the World Cup, the most of any country outside of Europe and the Americas.
While an 11 p.m. Beijing start time is much better than one in the middle of the night, it is still far from ideal for Asian soccer fans. The World Cup will be in Qatar in 2022 and North America in 2026. It will likely return to Europe in 2030. To get another prime time World Cup final, Asia may have to wait until 2034. Two competing consortiums of Asian countries — Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, and China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea — are expected to submit bids to host then.