Chinese investment analysed: What Far East funds mean for the game
Last Updated: 21/07/16 3:26pm
With Wolves the latest club to receive investment from China, Johnny Phillips examines the trend and what it means for the game...
Ordering a Chinese takeover has never seemed so easy.
Earlier this year, the Chinese Super League grabbed global headlines as it broke its transfer record four times in a single month, luring Ramires away from Chelsea and persuading Alex Teixeira to sign for Jiangsu Suning instead of Liverpool.
But in recent months, the focus has changed, with many Chinese companies and entrepreneurs linked with European clubs - especially those in England.
These are changing times and China is looking to play a huge role in shaping the future of football. Sports business journalist Mark Dreyer, a former colleague on Soccer Saturday, has spent the past eight years in Beijing and has documented much of this for China Sports Insider.
"The government has been actively looking for new areas to drive the economy and the sports sector is one that has been actively targeted," Dreyer says.
"Chinese president - and football fan - Xi Jinping has announced a long-term vision to overhaul the football industry from top to bottom, with the aim of making China a true global soccer power by 2050.
"Chinese companies are being encouraged to become more global in their outlook and diversify their businesses to become more competitive both domestically and overseas.
"Many Chinese companies have been piling into football investment, both at home and abroad, not only because they want to be a part of China's next growth story, but because they also want to maintain good government relations."
Right now, the West Midlands appears to be a focal point for much of this interest, with Aston Villa recently bought, Wolves confirming a takeover on Thursday and West Brom the subject of on-going speculation.
"So little is known overseas about the vast majority of potential Chinese owners that rumours can spread like wildfire," Dreyer adds. "China's market is so big that investors could emerge from any sector, possibly venturing into sports for the first time.
"In fact, Chinese companies are making deals in the energy, real estate, transport and consumer sectors that often run to billions of dollars, so these football purchases equate to mere pocket change in comparison.
"As a rule, I would say nine out of 10 stories don't really have much basis in reality - but fans keep hoping that their club is the lucky tenth one."
So who are the potential investors with real clout?
"Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Wanda Group [recently linked with West Brom], and China's richest man, is definitely leading the way here. Not only was he among the first to make an overseas investment with a 20 per cent stake in Atletico Madrid, but he has also made some massive deals.
"Elsewhere, Jack Ma - chairman of Alibaba, China's second richest man and seen as an Asian equivalent to Steve Jobs - owns 40 per cent of Guangzhou Evergrande, China's leading domestic club and winner of the Asian Champions League twice in the past three years.
"Then there's Zhang Jindong, whose Suning e-commerce group owns a team in the Chinese Super League that broke the Chinese transfer fee record twice earlier this year and also purchased Inter Milan last month."
The long-term plan is evident, as Dreyer explains. "Towards the end of last year, China Media Capital (CMC) led a group that invested $400m into the City Football Group, Manchester City's parent company, in exchange for 13 per cent of the company.
"The franchise model, with clubs in the US, UK, Japan and Australia, plus Manchester City's impressive academy set-up are both elements that Chinese football is known to favour.
"Instead of attempting to buy the whole thing, the idea is that this investment can be used as a way to see how the club is run and some of that expertise can be brought back to China.
"Of course, it didn't hurt that Chinese legend Sun Jihai played for Manchester City or that President Xi had posed for a selfie with Sergio Aguero on a visit to the training ground just weeks before the deal was announced."
"My advice would be to take the big statements of intent with a pinch of salt," says Dreyer.
"There are dozens of top European clubs all actively trying to crack the Chinese market and Chinese fans won't flock to Villa simply because of their owner - but Villa fans have had such a torrid time in recent years that even modest improvement on the pitch would be a big step forward."
Should Wolves fans be getting carried away?
Robin Li, founder of search engine Baidu, was first reported to be purchasing the club and now Fosun International, a Shanghai investment company, have completed a Molineux buyout.
"Founder Guo Guangchang is another in the upper reaches of China's rich list. Fosun's previous investments in Club Med, Thomas Cook, Cirque du Soleil and other 'health and happiness' deals, as they put it, should stand them in good stead.
"Put it this way - my guess is that Wolves will be higher up the league table than Villa ten years from now!"
How are the Chinese Super League signings doing?
Have Jackson Martinez, Gervinho and Alex Teixeira been a success?
Dreyer is convinced there will be many more takeover stories over the coming months, not least due to the changing political environment.
"Undoubtedly the weaker pound, following the Brexit vote, has made English clubs that much more attractive in recent weeks. Wanda specifically mentioned this as a factor when it announced a deal to buy the Odeon and UCI cinema chain last week."
The Premier League may have missed a trick when it failed to renegotiate the television rights deal with China's national broadcaster CCTV 10 years ago. Since then, Europe's other leagues have garnered interest from football fans in China. But now it appears that English football is attracting attention once more.
Every week there are new targets - and new buyers. With the Villa and Wolves local rivalry now gaining an oriental sub-plot, and West Brom looking to follow suit, a Chinese takeover could be coming to a club near you soon.