How a Spanish third division football game highlights potential perils of Chinese takeover spree

With football clubs seemingly the must-have item for Chinese investors of varying legitimacy, it’s hard not to feel that many of these deals will end in tears

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 8:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2016, 5:04pm

I’m guessing not many readers will be pumped up for the Jumilla v Lorca game on Sunday. Few people outside of Murcia in Spain will have even heard of the football teams.

But the Segunda B game will supposedly be broadcast to a potential audience of 300 million in China, since both clubs are now Chinese-owned.

That’s the claim from Jumilla at least. The word ‘potential’ is rather important: I couldn’t find any listings for it and if it is on somewhere, I strongly doubt a quarter of the population is going to tune in for a Spanish third division match.

These are the sort of wild claims that get thrown around when Chinese ‘investors’ come to town. Jumilla have branded the game the ‘Shanghai derby’ since both sets of owners are from there. They have moved it to Real Murcia’s 31,000-seat stadium, though both clubs struggle to attract 1,000 fans most games.

Jumilla’s Chinese owners are Tang Hui and Li Xiang, former La Liga commentators on PPTV in China. The face of Lorca is Xu Genbao, who managed China in the 90s. He wants nothing to do with this ‘Shanghai derby’ nonsense.

“I told ... Jumilla I did not want to know anything about the mounting of this meeting as a derby,” he told Spanish sports paper Marca.

“It won’t have any positive influence on the people or on Chinese football ... I don’t participate in this supposed great event. The objectives of both Chinese investors are very different ... I had my project very clear: improve Chinese football by learning about Spanish football.

“Meanwhile, I think Jumilla have another type of project, with other types of interests ... Everyone has a motivation for investing his money, it doesn’t have to concur with my ideas.”

Xu has 24 of his youngsters from his Shanghai academy training with Lorca in an effort to improve their skills the Spanish way, according to Marca. On the face of it, his interest in Europe appears to be to develop Chinese football.

As for Jumilla’s motives... the team’s shirts bear the URL of a website for a dubious-looking ‘football investment’ scheme of which Li and Tang are the public face. It claims to “create a football finance industry chain” to “let fans enjoy the joy of football and at the same time get a good return on investment”.

Nowhere is it explained exactly how this is achieved and it seems to me that Jumilla’s owners have bought their club solely to market this wheeze – which they are evidently good at, given the headlines in Spain and beyond. They claim that many media from China will be at the game which – if true – will be further free publicity.

Fans of French club Sochaux-Montbeliard are among the first in Europe regretting the sale of their club to Chinese owners – as I predicted they would earlier this year.

After meeting the boss of little-known Hong Kong lighting firm Tech Pro, Amos Li Wing-sang, I was far from convinced of his apparent new interest in football. If only I shorted the shares, which lost almost all their value overnight in July; bankruptcy proceedings have been launched against Li.

The takeovers keep on coming though. AC Milan will soon be in Chinese hands, and Internazionale already is, with supporters angry with new owners Suning for the hasty sacking of manager Frank de Boer.

AS Nancy Lorraine are set to be taken over by a Chinese-Canadian group. One of the investors is reportedly the daughter of a high-ranking army official, which immediately raises red flags (not China ones) for me given the endemic corruption in the PLA.

Pro football in England’s Midlands is essentially an all-Chinese affair with Wolverhampton Wanderers (Fosun International), Aston Villa (Recon Group), Birmingham City (Trillion Trophy Asia) and West Bromwich Albion (Yunyi Guokai Sports Development) all Chinese-owned.

Do they care about sport or is their investment, as academic and China football expert Simon Chadwick argues, more about being strategically located for construction contracts and so on related to the coming HS2 rail line from London to Birmingham?

Southampton are the latest linked with a Chinese takeover from another firm, Lander, that has previously had zero interest in sport.

And just this week in Hong Kong, a company called Greater China Professional Services Limited outlined its plans for a takeover of Hull City.

Hull fans seem cautiously optimistic about the news, because they despise the current owners. But GCPSL is a Cayman-Islands registered company listed on Hong Kong’s notoriously sketchy Growth Enterprise Market. Not saying they are dodgy, just that plenty of other firms with those two characteristics have been.

We can’t lump all these companies together just because they’re all Chinese – even in a corner of southern Spain there’s two different approaches from Chinese owners.

Some will be honest and well-run, some will not, some will have fans’ interests at heart, others will only care about somehow leveraging their football business into lucrative sidelines. I can’t help but wonder how many of them will still be around in 10 years’ time.