By Clara Ferreira-Marques
SINGAPORE (Reuters Breakingviews) - When it comes to Chinese acquisitions in European soccer and vice versa, the score is $3 billion-nil. A string of investments in storied clubs, from Atletico Madrid to AC Milan, stopped abruptly when Beijing put its foot down in 2017. The Abu Dhabi- and Chinese-owned group behind Manchester City could be the first heavyweight to bet the other way.
For European football executives, China is a field of dreams. There are 1.4 billion potential fans, and a government that aims to host and win the World Cup. Beijing wants an $800 billion sports market by 2025, bigger than the worldwide outlay now.
So English clubs, in particular, have rushed to set up local offices, open training academies, and put on stunts like videos of stars learning to make dumplings. But no club from the English Premier League, nor any rich continental rival, has yet put its stamp on China’s domestic game.
That is not too surprising. This is a much harder trophy to clinch than a few new fans. Chinese company accounts are frequently, to put it politely, opaque. An early attempt at cracking the market by Sheffield United, a venerable English club, ended with a match-fixing scandal. And TV revenues for clubs in the Chinese Super League are so poor they would currently barely cover three months of superstar striker Carlos Tevez’s reported salary.
But that still leaves an open goal for an experienced player, who knows how to do more with everything from replica shirts to online tie-ups to stadium hospitality. City Football Group, which owns Manchester City and New York City FC, would be well placed. It thinks bigger than most European club owners, with a global network of teams. It also has mainland investors, who could be partners in any deal, and good connections: President Xi Jinping took a selfie at Manchester City’s grounds in 2015.
Valuation could be a problem: a property developer in January agreed to pay a walloping 3.6 billion yuan, or $545 million, for control of local side Beijing Guoan. But if CFG can avoid paying fantasy sums, this could be an interesting transfer.
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