Hong Kong businessnman Carson Yeung promised an annual transfer kitty of £40 million ($66.69 million) for Birmingham City after taking over the football club in 2009. Early life under Yeung’s leadership proved a mixed blessing: Birmingham were relegated from the English Premier League the following year, although they did manage to win the League Cup.
By then, questions were being asked about how the former hairdresser was able to fund such an expensive hobby. But rather than bringing in new players, Yeung turns out to have specialised in another type of transfer activity – one that channelled illegal funds.
Last week a Hong Kong court sentenced Yeung to six years in jail for money laundering. The 54 year-old was convicted of five charges relating to HK$720 million ($92.5 million) passing through his bank accounts between 2001 and 2007.
The barber-turned-football-boss denied the charges, telling the court that he had amassed his wealth through his hair salon business, savvy stock and real estate investment, and a bit of luck gambling in Macau. But it didn’t wash. Yeung was described by the judge as “not a witness of truth”.
Thanks to the immense popularity of English football, China’s business moguls have been linked to takeovers of a number of British clubs. In January the Mirror reported that Southampton might become Britain’s wealthiest team after Wang Jianlin, dubbed China’s richest man, was rumoured to be in talks for a £175 million takeover. Back in 2010, Zhu Jun, chairman of Nasdaq-listed The9, posted a photo of himself sitting behind a table stashed with Chinese cash as he tried to buy Liverpool football club. The photo was offered as proof of the financial resources to do so.
Like the transfer gossip flaunted by avaricious agents, most of these stories never came true. (It turned out that Zhu would even have problems paying wages at his Shanghai club, see WiC181.) But Yeung was the first Chinese to own a top-flight English football club, which is why his rags-to- riches (and back again) story has China’s social media buzzing.
One view: that making such a high-profile purchase attracts unwanted attention. “Now I know why no Chinese tycoon wants to become an English club owner,” one weibo user suggested.
Prosecutors are now applying to confiscate Yeung’s HK$400 million ($51.52 million) in savings. But his main asset, the ownership of Birmingham football club, doesn’t seem threatened by his imprisonment. The club continues to be run by a Yeung appointee, despite growing anger from fans desperate to see him leave. They have been trying to oust him in a campaign called “Delay No More” – a demand that sounds like a four-letter swear word in Yeung’s native Cantonese.
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