Sport

Mendes plays his red card

Chinese tycoon teams up with world’s top football agent

Jorge Mendes

Mendes: new China venture

Chinese newspapers reckon Jorge Mendes, arguably the most influential broker of deals in world football, has a lot in common with his Chinese counterpart Joseph Lee. They actually call Lee “China’s Mendes”.

Among the things they have in common: both come from humble beginnings. Mendes wanted to be a footballer but was rejected by professional clubs. The Portuguese then ran a video rental store and worked as a DJ before becoming the representative of big names such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho.

Lee grew up in Hong Kong and in 1980 the Hubei native moved to Brazil. He didn’t make the grade as a professional football either, though he played part-time in an amateur team called Kirin. Meanwhile, he took odd jobs to survive. Lee’s luck changed in 1993 when China sent 22 teenagers to Brazil for a five-year training programme. Lee was asked to build and run a coaching school for the team. But on his advice, the money was instead spent to send the boys to a Sao Paulo club (see WiC205).

Professional football only got underway in China in 1994, and most of the new clubs turned to Lee to import Brazilian players. It made Lee’s company, Kirin Soccer, the most influential football agency in the country. China Daily reckons that between 1998 and 2005 Lee arranged the transfers of over 200 Brazilian players to China.

Lee’s prowess grew further when property tycoon Xu Jiayin also turned to Kirin Soccer. Lee helped bring in the likes of Argentine Dario Conca (once the world’s highest paid footballer, see WiC116) and Italy’s World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi to Xu’s Guangzhou Evergrande, turning the club into an all-conquering force in Asia.

More Chinese firms have turned to investing in football since the central government identified sport as a “strategy industry” for future economic growth. As Chinese football is now awash with cash (see WiC302), some locals wonder whether Lee might soon finding he’s competing head to head for players with Jorge Mendes himself.

In fact this prospect edged a step closer last week. Mendes was in Shanghai as his agency Gestifute celebrated a deal with Foyo Culture, a company controlled by Guo Guangchang, the chairman of investment conglomerate Fosun.

China Daily noted the two companies will set up a sports brokerage to bring “leading overseas players” to China while Mendes also hopes to send promising Chinese players to overseas clubs. ThePaper.cn also reported that Foyo had earlier invested $2.16 million for a 0.865% stake in Gestifute in November, valuing Mendes’ agency at $250 million.

Even before this Guo had some fairly extensive Portuguese connections. In 2014 Fosun acquired insurer Caixa Seguros and healthcare firm Espirito Santo Saude in Portugal. It is also one of the current bidders for control of lender Novo Banco.

“Chairman Guo is very reputable in Portugal,” Foyo’s CEO Shi Yu told internet newspaper Jiemian. “We asked for the contacts for the Mendes team [from Fosun’s Portuguese networks] and got in touch via phone. Surprisingly they are very interested in doing a deal.”

Shi said the commercial potential of Mendes’ clients has so far been untapped in China. “We are planning to open a weibo and WeChat account for Cristiano Ronaldo. We will bring Ronaldo closer to Chinese fans. He will come to China many times,” Shi promised.

While a number of state firms and private-sector tycoons have suddenly discovered a love for Chinese sports, this is the first time Guo has invested in the industry.

More recently he has been the subject of less desirable headlines after he suddenly went missing for several days in December – and speculation spread that he might become another victim of the ongoing anti-graft crackdown.

Perhaps Guo should take a look at Guangzhou Evergrande’s miraculous turnaround in 2009. Back then the highly leveraged developer was on the verge of going under following the 2008 global credit crisis. At this point Evergrande boss Xu began investing in Chinese sport: first with a female volleyball team, followed with the takeover of a failed football club in early 2010. Guangzhou Evergrande is currently one of the most recognised developers in China (though it is even more highly leveraged now, see WiC158).

Meanwhile China’s transfer market continues to hot up with news this week that Jiangsu Suning has paid a record fee to Chelsea for Brazilian midfielder Ramires – in a deal that could be worth as much as £25 million.


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