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.”
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.
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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.
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.