Trigger-happy new Chinese owners spark fears in European football
‘Majority of investors lack patience’ but others are happy to let those who know what they’re doing continue
European clubs Inter Milan, Aston Villa and Sochaux have had a high turnover of managers since Chinese takeovers, sparking fears that their trigger-happy new owners have little patience and no strategy.
“Many buyouts are irrational and defy the laws of the market,” said Zhou Jiming, a football analyst and director at the official China Sports Journal.
“The majority of investors lack patience,” he said.
That certainly appears to be the case with Aston Villa, currently under their third manager, after a takeover by Chinese businessman Tony Xia last June.
Xia spent €38 million (HK$316 million) to hire Roberto Di Matteo as manager, hoping the 2012 Champions League winner would be able to lift Villa’s flagging fortunes.
But Di Matteo was sacked just 11 games later and replaced by Steve Bruce.
Meanwhile Inter Milan, who are owned by Chinese electronics retailer Suning, in November named Stefano Pioli as their third manager in just four months, in a desperate bid to restore their reputation.
Their struggles prompted Chievo president Luca Campedelli to question Suning’s commitment to football, mocking the Chinese accent and saying it was “not enough just to pay wages”.
Even as China’s willingness to splash out on foreign talent has drawn top managers such as Manuel Pellegrini (Hebei Fortune), Andre Villas-Boas (Shanghai SIPG) and Sven Goran Eriksson (Shenzhen FC) to the country, many have not made it past a few months.
Eriksson was ousted from Shanghai SIPG despite leading them to a third-place finish in the 2016 Chinese Super League, Fabio Cannavaro was dismissed from Guangzhou Evergrande just six months into the job while Jean Tigana fared even worse at Shanghai Shenhua, sacked after only five games in charge in 2012.
Chinese investors in football would do well to look at Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Thai president of Leicester City, reigning English Premier League champion, for pointers, said analyst Zhou.
“He has done a lot of substantive, solid basic work, and the success has been there. Chinese investors lack this kind of involvement,” he said.
The shopping magnate bought the club in 2010, overseeing the greatest rags to riches story in football when his 5,000-1 shots won the Premier League last year.
According to Peter Kenyon, former chief executive of Manchester United and Chelsea, “The smart people understand it’s not about acquisition, it’s... what you do with it [afterwards].
“I think we are going to see good purchasers and bad purchasers but the ones that I’ve been involved with are long-term, they’ve got a strategy,” said Kenyon, who now advises on football business deals.
Some Chinese owners have proven to be patient: West Bromwich Albion, bought in September by entrepreneur Guochuan Lai, retained its manager, as did French side Auxerre, currently one place off the foot of French second division, following a takeover by China’s ORG Packaging in October.
“The smart ones... want to have a say, but understand it’s not about them picking the team. It’s a serious investment”, said Kenyon, who has worked on some Chinese acquisitions, including the Wanda Group’s purchase of a 20 per cent stake in Atletico Madrid in 2015.
That level of seriousness has been the case with Chinese fund IDG Capital Partners which acquired a 20 per cent stake in the French club Olympique Lyonnais (OL) as part of a “long-term” investment, according to the firm.
OL president Jean-Michel Aulas said IDG carried out “a real investigation” before arriving at a decision and has since put “no pressure” on the club’s recruitment of Chinese players.
“We have never imagined controlling Lyon. We are not good, not competent to manage a football club,” said Li Jianguang, who led the operation at IDG.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, a football fan, wants the country to host and win a World Cup, a target which has prompted a flood of money into top-flight teams as well as heavy investment and promotion of the sport nationally.
Chinese Super League clubs, encouraged by the government’s vision of turning China into a football superpower by 2050, have broken the Asian transfer record five times in less than a year, with Shanghai SIPG paying €60 million to lure Oscar from Chelsea.
The push to buy European clubs is part of a larger drive to secure China’s place in the global football arena, a quest with heavy political overtones.
“Sport gives you huge visibility, so if it’s successful it reflects well on them, and well on the country,” Kenyon said.
“If it’s not successful it reflects really badly.”