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Emerging markets

World Cup 2018: New horizons for the global game

Football is the most popular sport in the world. Even so, there are a few pockets where it could reap additional value.

No sport is more popular worldwide than football. When you’re already leading the globe in terms of players, fans and advertising dollars, where else is there to go?

Believe it or not, there are still pockets where FIFA, the sport’s governing body, could pursue added value. When tiny Iceland (population: 340,000) qualified for the World Cup this year after 12 failed attempts, the country was electrified. Football was already popular in the Nordic country, but after the national team’s victory over France in the qualifying rounds, interest in youth leagues and subsequent TV coverage both increased.

Here are four other countries that represent opportunities for growth and expansion.

Boys play football in a public park on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Boys play football in a public park on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

China

No surprise here – as it is for many other industries, China is a land of opportunity. With a population of 1.4 billion and a rising standard of living, China could be a veritable goldmine for FIFA.

However, the breakneck pace at which China seems to be taking an interest in football might need some reining in. The scramble for TV rights, for example, could conceivably leave fans in the dust, and Chinese soccer leagues’ insatiable appetite for European players might result in teams to which the average Chinese citizen can’t really relate.

FIFA’s challenge: Control and cultivate the burgeoning Chinese interest in football such that growth is healthy, sustainable and manageable.

The United States

Over the past two decades, the popularity of football in the U.S. has been growing (although not enough to overcome the country’s stubborn insistence on calling it “soccer.”)

Most of the popularity has been driven by family-friendly, charismatic sports personalities. Notably, female soccer players – from Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain in the late 1990s to Megan Rapinoe during the 2012 London Olympics – have generated much of the admiration and attention.

However, the personality-based appeal of soccer in the U.S. comes with a downside. If the U.S. team is not doing well, neither is domestic interest in the sport itself.  Case in point: This year,  the U.S. men’s national team did not qualify for a trip to Russia and TV ratings for the World Cup draw so far have withered.

FIFA’s challenge: Programming and promotion to get Americans to appreciate the sport itself, not just the athletes playing it.

Children play soccer in Saransk, Russia, July 15, 2017. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
Children play soccer in Saransk, Russia, July 15, 2017. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

India

Football’s failure to capture the interest of the world’s second most-populous country might be attributable to one thing: Cricket.

There are many reasons for football’s inability to ignite, but a major one is that cricket has developed a very strong identity and cultural tie to India, and so enjoys the lion’s share of spotlight. FIFA has created programs to boost grassroots interest in football, but they have a long road ahead of them.

FIFA’s challenge: Continue its nurturing programs to promote football in India and highlights successes to fuel a domestic sense of pride and identity.

Australia

Football isn’t unpopular in Oz. It’s just not quite as popular as Australian rules football or rugby. As is the case with cricket and India, Australian rules football has a strong and unique cultural tie to the country, and so occupies a spot in Aussies’ hearts that is hard to overcome. There’s also some thinking that because football can’t attract young athletes away from Australian rules football, it will never develop a pipeline of talent or a national team strong enough to stand on the world stage.

FIFA’s challenge: Figure out how to make football more appealing to young Australians than Australian rules football (a big victory, à la Iceland, certainly would not hurt.)

People practice soccer in a slum on the outskirts of Sao Paulo October 28, 2007. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
People practice soccer in a slum on the outskirts of Sao Paulo October 28, 2007. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Learn more

Explore Thomson Reuters Eikon and the rest of Answers On’s World Cup coverage.

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