Viva Espana

Wanda boss keen to woo Spain

China's Wanda Group acquires stake in Atletico Madrid soccer club

New signing: Wang poses with an Atletico Madrid shirt

Few eyebrows were raised last week when Spanish lender BBVA dumped half of its remaining 9.9% stake in China Citic Bank for $1.7 billion.

After all, most of BBVA’s banking peers have offloaded their shareholdings in Chinese lenders over the past few years. Likewise, Spanish telecom giant Telefonica has been retreating from an alliance with China Unicom.

But if the Spanish love is no longer mutual, one Chinese businessman seems keen to keep the investment flowing – in the other direction. Enter Wang Jianlin, the chairman of property conglomerate Dalian Wanda, and one of China’s richest men.

Last week Wanda concluded a €45 million ($50 million) purchase of a 20% stake in Spanish club Atletico Madrid. That makes it the first Chinese firm to invest in a major European football team.

Atletico won Spain’s top division last season and the La Liga champions and Wanda will jointly invest €45 million to build a training centre in Spain for Chinese youngsters (as part of an existing youth programme sponsored by Wanda). Atletico will also provide technical support for three football academies Wanda is building in China.

The latest deal is one of a number of Spanish overtures that Wang has made in recent years. As part of a multi-year sponsorship deal signed with the Chinese Football Association in 2011, Wanda was effectively given the right to pick the head coach for the country’s national team. Wang opted for former Real Madrid player and manager Jose Antonio Camacho, although the Spaniard was soon fired after a string of disappointing results.

Wang has been making noises about Spanish culture too, claiming to be fond of the Cervantes classic Don Quixote and bidding a record-breaking $28 million for Pablo Picasso’s 1950 painting Claude and Paloma in 2013.

And of course the Edificio Espana will soon be known as Wanda Plaza after Wanda bought the 25-storey Madrid landmark for $340 million last June. “Obviously Wang has been trying very hard to woo the Spaniards,” writes respected sports pundit Yang Hua. “Spain will be an important bridgehead for Wanda’s overseas expansion… The key for Wang is about expanding his personal network in Spain.”

Century Weekly magazine agreed, saying that Wanda is trying to build the “Wangjia Madrid”. (wangjia means “Wang’s family” in Chinese and has connotations implying royalty.)

Some in the Spanish media have sounded impressed. Profiling Wang last year, the best-selling sports paper Marca described him as an “enthusiast for paintings and operas”. It added: “He believes the highest pursuit in life should be spiritual need. At the top of any industrial chain should be the cultural business.”

But Chinese journalists wonder if the Spanish press is falling short in its understanding of Wang and his complicated business empire. “Wang remains a stranger to most Spaniards,” Sina Sports says, noting that Marca is still labelling him as mainland China’s richest man, without noticing that the title has been claimed by Alibaba’s Jack Ma.

Back at home the Wanda tycoon has been keener to play up his expert investment skills, rather than appear to be splashing cash on a trophy asset.

For example, at a Beijing press conference last week, Wang confirmed that he was offered a controlling stake in Valencia last year (another La Liga club, which was eventually sold to Singaporean tycoon Peter Lim).

He says that he opted for the minority stake in Atletico instead because the valuation was much more attractive.

Additionally, Wang says he turned down the chance to buy the naming rights to Real Madrid’s famed Bernabeu stadium, which the club’s president Florentino Pérez Rodríguez offered to Wanda for €50 million.

This week it was reported that Real Madrid look set to rename their stadium the Abu Dhabi Santiago Bernabeu as part of a sponsorship deal with an investment firm from the United Arab Emirates.

“We are Chinese. Not the Arabs. We want a good return from our investment,” Wang told the Real Madrid president in turning down the same sponsorship offer, according to Phoenix Sports.

So Atletico fans hoping that Wang is going to do a Roman Abramovich – use his fortune to fill the squad with stars – may be in for a disappointment. Indeed, Wang’s dislike of comparisons with Chelsea’s Russian owner is well publicised (see WiC187) and Xinhua has reported that Wang’s investment in Atletico is motivated more by the fact that he wants to “make a contribution to Chinese football”, especially in youth development. Although perhaps there’s a link to Wanda’s plans to invest €6 billion in Spain’s real estate market too…

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