Could Old Trafford be the latest footballing icon to fall into the lap of a Chinese buyer? That was the frenzied speculation after the Sunday Times reported earlier this month that Manchester United could be another high profile soccer club to be acquired by a Chinese buyer. China’s media quickly followed up, suggesting that insurer Ping An was the purchaser, and floated the idea that its boss Ma Mingzhe already owned a 3.46% stake in the English team. However, that was quickly denied by the company. “This is a false rumour,” a spokesman told Sohu Finance. “Ping An has never been involved in the purchase of shares in Manchester United and Ma Mingzhe has never owned any shares of Manchester United.”
However, while the Chinese bid for United was soon consigned to the fake news category, a real purchase did emerge this week with the announcement that fellow English Premiership club Southampton had been bought by Gao Jisheng, a man termed by the Financial Times as a “real estate magnate”. His property group Lander Holdings has paid £200 million for an 80% stake in a club which normally finishes in the top half of the table but rarely wins trophies (it last won the FA Cup in 1976). In recent years Chinese buyers have purchased five other English clubs as well Italy’s AC Milan and Inter Milan.
However, over the past few months Chinese authorities have cracked down on such overseas ‘trophy’ purchases, making it all the more surprising that Gao got the approval to ink this deal. In March, for example, the Secretary of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, Pan Gongsheng, told a conference: “Last year Chinese companies bought a lot of football clubs overseas. If acquisition is conducive to improving the level of football in China, I think it is a good thing, but is the real situation like this? There are many companies whose debt ratio in China has been high, but they still borrowed a lot of money to finance overseas acquisitions. Some even transferred assets under the disguise of direct investment.”
Now that Gao has achieved his goal, fans of the club nicknamed the Saints will hope he will also get the nod to transfer more funds out of China to buy players and boost the team’s prospects in the English league.