Why fans of French club Sochaux fear takeover by Hong Kong company could mean lights out for their team

Hong Kong-listed firm Ledus, which makes LED lights, raised eyebrows when it bought the historic team in July; six months on, local supporters are furious at the state of their team under its new owners

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 January, 2016, 9:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 3:05pm

The towns of Sochaux and Montbeliard, on the border with Switzerland, are best known (if at all) outside France for Comte cheese and Peugeot cars. But a storm involving their historic football team and its new owner, a Hong Kong lighting manufacturer, has been garnering national headlines, and threatens to get ugly.

FC Sochaux-Montbeliard (FCSM), founded in 1928 by Jean-Pierre Peugeot for his factory workers, was bought for 7 million (HK$59.3 million) last year in a takeover by Hong Kong-listed firm TechPro, whose primary business is manufacturing LED lighting under the brand name Ledus.

With Peugeot more interested in motorsport than football in recent years, the move was greeted with optimism by fans. The club was in the top flight as recently as 2014 and won the French Cup in 2007, but now it’s in danger of relegation to the third tier – and the new owners are being blamed.

The club’s various supporters’ groups united for the first time to issue a statement this month criticising Ledus’ management, questioning the trustworthiness of agents close to the owners and demanding a plan for the future.

“The fans are feeling betrayed,” says journalist Pierre Godon. “They felt they found someone to restore the status of the club ... [now] they feel like they are a financial tool [for Ledus].”

In the statement, which attracted national media interest, fans said “we express our deep concern about the current management of FCSM by its new shareholder Ledus. We fear for the future of our club.

“[...] Without a clear vision of what the shareholder wishes for FC Sochaux and its development, trust is impossible,” continued the statement. “What will be the investments, both in sports and in terms of infrastructure? What should be reformed in the club? How can the club meet its needs? What role will the training centre play? How does the club hope to regain Ligue 1?

“The absence of project and investment guarantees, added to the distrust of those who take decisions behind the scenes, appear to be for us the greatest dangers for the future of FC Sochaux.”

Ledus chairman Amos Li Wing-sang has come under fire, says Godon. “Peugeot, the former owner, put around 15 million in the club before selling to Li,” he says.

“The fans feel Peugeot was truly interested in the club, when Mr Li does nothing except take selfies in the stand. They also have doubts about the sincerity of Ledus: how can Mr Li, who is supposed to be an international businessman, spend half a week, every week, in Sochaux?

“In France, there have been disastrous examples of foreign businessmen taking over clubs and pushing them into bankruptcy, or nearly, such as Grenoble, Lens, Strasbourg. Sochaux fans feel they are next.”

An interview with Li at his office in Sheung Wan last week may not assuage those fears.

“A friend in France introduced the club to us,” says Chaozhou-born Li, who moved to Hong Kong as a young child before studying business in Japan, of the takeover.

“In the first moment we said no, we don’t know about the football business, but finally they convinced our company because they said the football business is really good as a sales and marketing platform.”

Li, who admits he previously had no interest in football, seems to regard the deal as money well spent as he looks to establish Ledus’ brand name in Europe.

“A lot of people watch or [attend] the football matches ... it’s a very good platform for our LED lighting business,” he says.

A lot of people watch or [attend] the football matches ... it’s a very good platform for our LED lighting business
Amos Li Wing-sang

“If you [take out] advertising you have to pay [a lot of] money ... and also maybe nobody will take a look. But the football business, in the championship the whole year we have 38 matches and our team goes out for away matches to 19 cities.

“Our [team] coach has Ledus [on it], every player wears the jersey with the Ledus logo. We also have the TV broadcast, so a lot more people ... maybe one million, will watch ... almost every week the newspaper will announce news about your football club.”

Li admits that association with the sport is also good for guanxi in mainland China, with President Xi Jinping declaring that the country’s football fortunes must soar.

Recently, Chinese firms have bought stakes in clubs in England (Manchester City), Spain (Atletico Madrid, Espanyol), the Netherlands (ADO den Haag) and the Czech Republic (Slavia Prague).

“In China, you know very well a lot of people are very interested in football,” says Li. “[President] Xi wants to promote the China football business so it’s a very good relationship crossover.”

ADO supporters are also furious with the lack of direction at their club as European fans find that their concerns might not always be top of Chinese companies’ priorities.

Li says, “we have to have more communication with the staff and fans”, as he admits the first six months of ownership have been “very complicated”.

Ledus, which declared a loss of 55 million yuan for the six months to June 2015 in its most recently available interim report, would seem to have neither the resources nor inclination to spend huge amounts buying footballers.

“The supporters are not happy about the performance, so they are challenging why Ledus won’t invest more money to buy famous players,” says Li.

“But I have to tell them, we are businessmen; if necessary we can invest but we have to know what is our mission and how much we have to invest.

“If you invest a lot of money buying players from outside for performance this is one way, but for Sochaux-Montbeliard it’s not only this way. We have to give our academy players more opportunities to play ... so we are doing it this way.

Today it’s difficult to trust Ledus over the long term
Supporter David Modeste

“We’re not PSG where Qatar pay the money and hire a lot [of huge names], this is not our business model, this is not Sochaux-Montbeliard culture.”

Prudent, perhaps, but unlikely to fill fans with confidence.

“Today, it’s difficult to trust Ledus over the long term,” says one, David Modeste. “Trust is built on transparent exchanges and for the moment this is not the case.

“The situation of Ledus ... is also a concern as to their financial capacity and ability to develop a football club.”

Could the venture actually do Ledus’ brand more harm than good if things don’t improve on the pitch? “I cannot say [I’m] not worried, but we have to try to do our best,” says Li. “If the results and performances are very good, Ledus will be more famous, so for me Ledus and Sochaux are very important .

“If [the team are] going up, both [are] going up. If not and supporters are not happy then of course Ledus fail too, so both are very important.”

Modeste says fans are waiting for a response to their concerns, but warns “[without any], tougher action could be put in motion.”

With games fast running out and relegation looming, they hope Ledus’ ownership does not mean lights out for their beloved club.