As the fever dream of the Fifa World Cup recedes into the distance, a truth becomes apparent: the profile of football’s main sponsors has evolved over the past 20 years, closely mirroring those seen in the global economy.

The tentpoles of Western capitalism, whose pitch-side advertising was the backdrop to some of football’s most iconic moments, from Pele’s lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy for the last time in 1970 to Diego Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ in 1986 and Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in 2006, have given way to a new cohort of up-and-coming, deep-pocketed global brands mostly from fast-growing Asian countries. 


The Fifa World Cup featured almost exclusively US, Japanese and Western European firms as sponsors until 2006, when Emirates Airlines became the first notable exception to a rule that was about to be subverted, according to an analysis by fDi Intelligence. From 2006 onwards, the balance of Fifa World Cup sponsors has been shifting eastwards. In the Qatar World Cup, Asian sponsors outnumbered those from the US and Europe for the first time on record, fDi analysis shows. 

New sponsors rise

Although it may appear as a symbol of a more globalised market,  of a more globalised market at first glance, Skema Business School professor of sport and geopolitical economy Simon Chadwick suggests otherwise: “The word ‘globalisation’ implies something quite diverse and multipolar. In reality, [Fifa] sponsorship networks are dominated increasingly by China and the Gulf region.” 

[Fifa] sponsorship networks are dominated increasingly by China and the Gulf region.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy, Skema Business School,

There is not so much a global widening as a global shift, he adds.


The pivotal moment was the global economic crisis of 2008/09, Mr Chadwick says. Western corporations could not quite justify their engorged advertising budgets any longer: they needed solid proof that football helped, and were unable to find it.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, corporations from other countries moved in to fill the vacuum and Western corporations never quite regained their ground. 

And when Fifa was hit by a major corruption scandal in 2015, it once again it found itself struggling to find sponsors. It was then that Chinese companies quadrupled their efforts.

Fast-forward to the most recent World Cup, Chinese firms’ share of sponsorship equalled that of their US peers for the second tournament in a row, while Japanese sponsors were notably absent. Forty years ago, in the 1982 World Cup, Japanese companies were the most represented.

Sportswashing push 

But sports marketing has changed in more ways than just geography. Sponsorship is no longer the preserve of hard-nosed North American businesses — it is increasingly dominated by state companies from autocratic countries often charged with rehabilitating their countries’ image. 

Organisations like Fifa, the International Olympic Committee and the Union of European Football Associations have “welcomed them with open arms”, says Stanis Elsborg, senior analyst at sports thinktank Play the Game.

These firms’ interest in sport is part of a political strategy, Mr Elsborg says, and a play for power in international relations. Who pays for the party shows just how much the world of sport is working in tandem with authoritarian regimes, he adds.

The sportswashing angle is clear when it comes to the business-to-business profile of some of the Fifa World Cup’s main international sponsors. While the event’s global audience is an obvious incentive for the world’s biggest consumer brands, which can gain exposure to a billions-strong audience, it has little direct commercial value for the likes of Russian oil and gas powerhouse Gazprom, main partner of the 2018 World Cup, or its Middle Eastern peer Qatar Energy, main partner of the recent 2022 tournament, whose customers are typically other state or private oil and gas companies that refine and distribute their hydrocarbons. 

Instead, these sponsorships provide a platform to grease government-to-government relationships, Mr Chadwick says. An important part of sponsorship is always the so-called activation that comes after the paycheque: the corporate hospitality events where sponsors meet influential figures. They are “private members’ clubs”, says Mr Chadwick, “a form of fast-track diplomacy”. 

Saudi Arabia may be among the last authoritarian countries to embrace sportswashing tactics, but it is doing so with a breathtaking level of assertiveness. Al Nassr FC, a club based in Saudi capital Riyadh with strong ties to the royal family, stunned the world when it signed Cristiano Ronaldo in late 2022, stumping up hundreds of millions of dollars for the Portuguese star to play for two years before becoming an ambassador for the country’s bid to host the World Cup in 2030. 

Reflections of society 

Sportswashing is nothing new, says Stefan Szymanski, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. Using sports as a smokescreen for less salubrious business has been around since the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he points out, and state-run companies sponsoring sports is not in itself a big issue.

“Political interference and the instrumentalisation of sport by governments has always been cause for concern, but how much worse is that than Coca-Cola using sport to sell unhealthy drinks, or McDonalds to sell unhealthy food?” he asks.

“Sport is caught up in the anti-democratic wave that we see around the world,” he admits, but adds that sports reflects society rather than directing it. “Anyone in a country with open media could see what Russia and Qatar were doing with the World Cup,” he says. “How much you cared depended on which side of the political divide you stood.”

Fifa’s modern sponsorship model was born in 1982. From that first batch of sponsors, only Coca-Cola survives. The beverage company has continued to associate its brand with the event every four years since then. Call it globalisation, call it sportswashing, Citizen Coke is always courtside.

This article first appeared in the February/March 2023 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.