Society, Sport

Inter change

Chinese retailer buys Inter Milan; is AC Milan next?

Inter Milan's honorary chairman Moratti holds an Inter Milan jersey as chairman Thohir casts a shadow on the screen before a news conference in Milan

Former owner Moratti

Money doesn’t always guarantee success in football. Oil tycoon president Massimo Moratti smashed the transfer world record twice after he bought Inter Milan in 1995, pairing up the original Ronaldo (of Brazil) and Italy’s own golden boy Christian Vieri in a fearsome strike force (Roberto Baggio joined later too). But Inter did not win the domestic league title till a decade after Moratti had taken over. Standing in his way was Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon and former Italian Prime Minister, who owned cross-town rival AC Milan, which won the Serie A title five times in the 1990s.

Inter fans will be hoping that another change in the club’s ownership offers a more rapid route to success. On Monday the club announced that a 70% stake in the team had been sold to Chinese electronic retailer Suning Commerce for €270 million ($307 million).

In 2013, Moratti sold a 70% stake in Inter to a group led by Indonesian sports investor Erick Thohir for about $340 million (according to Italian media reports). Following the latest deal with Suning, Thohir will stay on as president and become the sole minority shareholder at the club.

“In the past two and a half years we have built on a solid foundation, making the club stronger. Now this new partnership will allow us to take a new, decisive step forward in our bid to restore Inter to its rightful place among the world’s top clubs,” the Indonesian businessman told a press conference in Suning’s hometown Nanjing.

Inter finished fourth in the league last season and thus failed to qualify for the money-spinning UEFA Champions League. But Suning has promised to splash the cash to bring the glory back to the San Siro, a stadium shared with AC Milan. Suning’s chairman Zhang Jindong has already proven himself a master strategist, first outpacing his erstwhile rival Gome – formerly China’s largest electronics retailer. Then in August last year he sold a 20% stake to Alibaba, an e-commerce platform that offers direct competition to Suning’s 1,600-store retail chain. A month later he agreed a strategic partnership with Dalian Wanda, China’s biggest commercial landlord, to open Suning stores in Wanda Plazas across the country (see WiC296).

Alibaba and Wanda have been expanding in the football industry (Alibaba owns 50% of Chinese Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande, while Wanda bought a 20% stake in Spanish team Atletico Madrid last year, see WiC268). But Suning has been building up its own sports business too. It acquired video website PPTV (a streaming site for live sports events) in 2013 and last year it took over a professional club which was then renamed Jiangsu Suning (shortly afterwards it signed Brazilian players Ramires and Alex Teixeira for a combined $93 million, see WiC313).

“This will not only improve Jiangsu Suning FC’s technical set-up and operational capabilities, but will also help Suning to grow internationally, enabling us to become a household brand name in Europe and across the world,” Zhang said at this week’s press conference on the Milan deal.

Two weeks ago we wrote about the Chinese takeover at Aston Villa, a British club that has just been relegated from the country’s top division (see WiC326). Suning’s bid for Inter is being treated by the Chinese press as a greater statement of ambition, with Xinhua noting that this is the first time that a Chinese entity has taken control of one of the now-defunct group of so-called “G14 clubs” (formerly a gathering of elite European teams, the G14 was disbanded in 2008 and replaced by the European Club Association representing over 100 clubs).

Xinhua also advised Inter’s new owner to show some patience if it wants the acquisition to be a successful one. “Obviously Suning can now print its corporate logo on Inter Milan. But it is not desirable to export its brand too hastily,” the newspaper opined. “This has to be done via a thorough understanding of Italian culture.”

Jiangsu Suning is expected to send more than 100 Chinese youth players to Inter for training in the next three years. But Southern Metropolis Daily said it will take time for both parties in the deal to get what they want. “It will be a long term investment for Suning – and an even longer one for Inter’s football culture to feed through our sport system,” it said. “It will also take time for the new owner to bring success to Inter.”

That said, at least Berlusconi won’t be standing in Zhang’s way, with speculation that the AC Milan boss is also looking to sell to a Chinese suitor. Bloomberg reported in April that a Chinese investor group has been pursuing a takeover and Italian media reported this week the buyer could be China Fortune Land, a real estate conglomerate that backs Hubei China Fortune, another team in the Chinese Super League.

Selling both of the San Siro’s teams to Chinese owners would be a sign of the times, it seems. And in other news of the growing Chinese interest in European football, the Financial Times reported last weekend that there will be Chinese characters on the shirts of “at least six” English Premiership clubs when the new season starts in August.

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