Friday, October 21, 2016
  • Saturday, Mar. 19, 2016
Wanda Group Becomes 1st World Cup Sponsor Signed By FIFA In 2+ Years
FIFA-President Gianni Infantino speaks during a press conference after the FIFA executive meeting at the FIFA headquarters 'Home of FIFA' in Zurich, Switzerland, Friday, March 18, 2016. (Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP)
Chinese sponsor has links to former FIFA president Sepp Blatter
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FIFA signed its first World Cup sponsor in more than two scandal-hit years on Friday, agreeing to a four-tournament deal with a Chinese conglomerate that has links to Sepp Blatter.

FIFA said the deal with property and cinema giant Wanda Group runs through the 2030 World Cup — the next time that China could host the tournament. The value of the top-tier partnership was not disclosed but is likely to top hundreds of millions of dollars.

The firm's Wanda Sports Holding subsidiary is led by Blatter's nephew, Philippe Blatter. Sepp Blatter was forced out as FIFA president by a corruption crisis.

Wanda Group chairman Wang Jianlin and Philippe Blatter were at FIFA headquarters on Friday to complete the first commercial deal for President Gianni Infantino, who was elected three weeks ago to succeed the now-banned Blatter.

"He is crazy about football," Infantino said of Wang, one of the richest men in China. "It is obviously an important strategic partner for the future."

Neither Wang nor Philippe Blatter attended the news conference and no one from Wanda Group was available to comment on the deal.

During his uncle's presidency, the Philippe Blatter-led Infront marketing agency won two FIFA contracts: To provide World Cup broadcasting services, and as a shareholder in MATCH Hospitality, which controls corporate seats at World Cup stadiums. Infront, based in Zug, Switzerland, was bought by Wanda last year.

Infantino said the Wanda deal met all of FIFA's stricter, new compliance standards.

"I am very well aware of the potential situations that can exist when you have partners who may have subsidiaries with commercial relations," he said.

FIFA last signed a World Cup sponsor 2 1/2 years ago — Russian energy giant Gazprom. The wait for more sponsors contributed to a $122 million loss in 2015 that FIFA announced on Thursday.

FIFA officials often acknowledged that potential commercial partners were put off by the scandals, and would wait until after the presidential election to sign.

The Wanda money will help fund the spending promises that Infantino made before his election last month, when FIFA officials warned voters of a $550 million shortfall in projected revenue through 2018.

"It will certainly help quite a lot to bridge that potential hole," Infantino said Friday, after chairing his first executive committee meeting over two days.

On Thursday, FIFA committed to pay $517 million more to national, regional and continental soccer bodies in money pledged by Infantino over the next two years.

FIFA also upgraded its revenue forecast by $1.2 billion to $5.66 billion for a four-year commercial cycle tied to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Wanda Group is not the first World Cup sponsor from China. Energy company Yingli Solar was a second-tier sponsor for the 2014 tournament in Brazil.

Last December, online retail giant Alibaba sponsored FIFA's annual Club World Cup tournament through its car manufacturing subsidiary.

On Thursday, FIFA said it banked only $224 million last year from seven World Cup sponsors. That left 27 of the available slots to be filled for two-tournament deals covering 2018 in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Wanda Group was the first of those 27, with others expected to follow.

"There will be some more positive news to announce in the coming weeks," Infantino said, describing potential new sponsors as a "wind of change" for FIFA.

Regarding his own FIFA deal, the former UEFA general secretary said his salary was not yet finalized. It is expected to be less than his predecessor, who FIFA confirmed on Thursday got a $3 million base salary in 2015 in a total pay package of $3.76 million.

"This was not my priority," the 45-year-old Infantino said. "When this will be (agreed), you will know it as well."

In soccer discussions, FIFA approved trials of allowing teams to use a fourth substitute in extra time at the Olympic tournaments in Brazil in August.

Infantino said his election pledge to open the 2026 World Cup bidding process soon would be on the agenda at a May 9-10 meeting in Mexico City. The United States, Canada and Mexico are expected bidders.

That meeting will be the first for a rebranded FIFA Council as the embattled soccer body erases the "executive committee" label that is a tainted symbol of the Blatter era.