South Korea's leading automaker Hyundai Motor Co. has agreed to sponsor the Czech Republic's national football team as part of its sports marketing drive to boost sales in Eastern Europe.

The agreement, signed this week in Prague, makes Hyundai Motor an official automobile partner for the Czech national football team, ranked fourth in the world by the international football's governing body FIFA, Hyundai Motor said.

"Under the deal, Hyundai Motor will supply a total of 12 vehicles to the Czech team for games including the 2006 World Cup in Germany," Hyundai Motor spokesman Kang Kyung-In told just-auto.

Kang added the Czech deal is part of the eight-year sponsorship contract Hyundai Motor and affiliate Kia Motors signed with FIFA earlier this month.

Although Hyundai Motor is focusing on its main US export market, the Czech Republic, which became an EU member earlier this year, is considered a foothold for the automaker to strengthen its presence in Europe.

Hyundai Motor is to open its Alabama plant in the US in late May to produce Sonata sedans this year and add the Santa Fe SUV next year.

Kia, for its part, is building a plant in Slovakia to produce small cars beginning late 2006 or early 2007.

While Hyundai Motor relies on football sponsorship, Kia Motors has been most active in sports marketing as a sponsor of major tennis matches. Last year, Kia agreed to reinforce and expand the corporation's existing Davis Cup sponsorship.

In Europe last year, Hyundai Motor sold 334,000 vehicles, thanks to strong demand for its Getz supermini and Accent compact cars, particularly in Germany and France. In 2003, it sold 289,000 units in the region.

In the Czech market last year, Hyundai Motor sold 5,789 units, for 3.6% market share.

Peter Chang