Zhang Jindong.

A Chinese billionaire with connections to President Xi Jinping announced a swoop for a majority stake in Italy’s Inter Milan on Monday, the most prestigious football club acquired so far by Chinese investors.

Zhang Jindong’s Suning retail giant will pay 270 million euros ($306 million) for about 70 percent of the three-time European champions, a landmark move for one of the sport’s most famous clubs.

He promised to pour funds into Inter, which finished fourth in this season’s Serie A, in hopes of putting it back among the top 10 European clubs by consistently playing in the Champions League.

With the deal, the company also hopes to benefit its big-spending Chinese Super League club, Jiangsu Suning, and to become a “household brand name in Europe and across the world”, a statement said.

“Buying Inter Milan is part of Suning’s overall layout in the sports industry,” Zhang, chairman of the Suning Holdings Group, told a glitzy announcement ceremony in Nanjing. “It is an important part of Suning’s international development.”

He added: “Suning will inject a steady stream of capital investment in Inter Milan, which will help it attract more talented players worldwide to once again win glory with strong backing.”

Inter Milan. Photo: Wikicommons.

Zhang joins a list of Chinese tycoons who have snapped up stakes in European clubs, including Wang Jianlin, Asia’s richest man, whose Wanda Group has a 20 percent stake in Inter Milan.

Model car maker Rastar, led by billionaire Chen Yansheng, completed its takeover of Spain’s Espanyol with a 54 percent stake in January.

Last December, state-backed China Media Capital bought a 13 percent stake in Manchester City for $400 million, and last month Aston Villa accepted a reported $87 million offer from Chinese businessman Tony Xia.

But Inter Milan, who are 18-time Italian league-winners and completed the country’s first treble in 2010, are the biggest club yet to come under Chinese ownership.

Europe or bust – five Chinese investments

”Atletico Madrid (ESP)”

Asia’s richest man Wang Jianlin got the ball rolling when he grabbed 20 percent of Spain’s Atletico Madrid in January last year, the first mainland Chinese investment in a top European football club. The real estate tycoon’s Wanda Group paid 45 million euros ($51 million) for the stake in Atletico, who finished runners-up to city rivals Real in last month’s Champions League final.

”Manchester City (ENG)”

Last December, weeks after President Xi Jinping toured Manchester City’s training ground and posed for a selfie with striker Sergio Aguero and British Prime Minister David Cameron, state-backed China Media Capital said it was buying a 13 percent stake in the club for $400 million. It constituted China’s first investment foray into the English Premier League, which is hugely popular among Chinese fans. Chairman Li Ruigang said one of the main aims was to gather experience and expertise to benefit China’s “domestic sport industry”. The Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City group also includes New York City and Melbourne City in its portfolio.

”Espanyol (ESP)”

Chinese model car maker Rastar Group, whose chairman is billionaire Chen Yasheng, completed a takeover of the La Liga club in January, taking 54 percent for 50 million euros. Espanyol, perennially overshadowed by their glamorous city rivals Barcelona, have been struggling with debts to the tax office and some suppliers. They finished 13th out of 20 teams in La Liga this season.

”Aston Villa (ENG)”

Businessman Tony Xia said he hoped to make Aston Villa the most famous club in China when his reported $87 million offer was accepted last month. Xia stepped in after Villa, whose American owner Randy Lerner had been trying to sell for two years, crashed out of the Premier League. Lerner has agreed to sell 100 percent ownership of Aston Villa to Xia’s Recon Group, subject to approval from the Premier League and Football League.

”Slavia Prague (CZE)”

Chinese energy firm CEFC acquired a majority stake of nearly 60 percent in the Czech First League team last September. Slavia had been in financial difficulties but said its acquisition would lead to “rapid economic stabilisation of the club and its subsequent development in the long run”, a report said.

Forza China 

Inter’s great cross-town rivals AC Milan, with whom they share the iconic San Siro stadium, are also in talks with Chinese investors over a possible sale following 30 years under former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Inter’s incoming owner has a net worth of $12.7 billion, according to China’s Hurun Rich List, making him the ninth richest person in the country.

He is a member of China’s top political consultative body, and was one of the business leaders who accompanied Xi on a tour of Britain last year.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a commercial contract exchange at the UK-China Business Summit in Mansion House, central London, on October 21, 2015 Photo: AFP/Leon Neal.

Inter have been under foreign control since 2013, when Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir took a 70 percent stake.

Under the new deal, Thohir’s International Sports Capital becomes the sole minority shareholder and Thohir retains his position as club president.

Massimo Moratti, Inter’s former president who oversaw a period of success including the league, Cup and Champions League treble in 2010, departs the club.

China’s spending spree has been spurred on by President Xi’s ambitions to import talent and expertise that can turn China into a global football power.

Xi is a known football fan and in 2011 — when he was vice president — he laid out three ambitions for China: to qualify for another World Cup, to host a World Cup and to win a World Cup.

Sport planners hope to turn China into a “world football superpower” by 2050, with a target of 50 million people playing the game by 2020, according to a plan published by the Chinese Football Association in April.

Zhang, 53, founded Suning in 1990 in the eastern city of Nanjing, and by 2013 it had grown to 1,700 stores employing 180,000 people across China, according to a profile from the state news agency Xinhua.

Last year, e-commerce giant Alibaba invested $4.6 billion in Suning, its biggest move yet to integrate its online and offline businesses. Alibaba also owns a stake in China’s Guangzhou Evergrande football club.

Inter fans can probably expect cash for new players: Jiangsu Suning twice broke the Asian transfer record this year to sign Ramires from Chelsea for 28 million euros and Shakhtar Donetsk’s Alex Teixeira for 50 million euros.


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