When the news broke this month that West Bromwich Albion were to be taken over by the Chinese company Yunyi Guokai, many were left looking for answers.
The group which had bought Jeremy Peace’s controlling stake was not exactly a household name. There was also an air of mystery around the consortium’s front man, Guochuan Lai. The only biographical detail that people could latch on to was that he had made his money in landscape gardening.
Curiously enough this CV entry is something Mr Lai shares with Tony Xia. In the late 90s Xia studied landscape design in the prestigious surrounds of Harvard University. Today he is better known as a monosodium glutamate magnate and the new owner of Aston Villa. Alongside the Fosun Group, which recently completed the acquisition of Wolverhampton Wanderers, these investors have conducted what looks like the Chinese takeover of West Midlands football this summer. It may extend further too, with Chinese investors in discussions to take over Hull City.
Those close to the West Brom deal attest that Lai’s landscaping days are long behind him. “He’s much more involved in town planning, in the development of new Chinese ‘eco towns’”, says Paul Marriott, the managing director of FTI Consulting in China, which has helped with the deal’s communications. But if the owners are not here because of ready access to Capability Brown’s gardens, do these recent deals amount to anything more than a coincidence? And if so what does it mean for fans and the local area?
There is certainly good reason to believe the acquisitions have not happened by chance. Last year the Chinese government, under the express direction of premier Xi Jinping, published their Football Reform and Development Program, a 50-point plan with the aim of making China a world footballing power. It has prompted a tidal wave of spending. Most notably this has been in the Chinese Super League itself with the arrival of such Premier League stars as Ramires and Graziano Pellè on massive transfer fees and even greater wages. But it has also meant a splurge of investment in European clubs from Atlético Madrid to Manchester City and even a controversial involvement in the Portuguese second division (the Chinese sponsor of the league had asked that each of the top 10 sides have a Chinese player in their squad – the idea was later abandoned).
Investing in a prestige business such as football makes straightforward business sense for Chinese companies, especially with the national government looking to rebalance their economy away from low-cost exports. Marriott explains that it was the strength of West Brom as a business that made it attractive to Yunyi Guokai: “It’s a club that’s been run very well and has been profitable for many years.” But of equal importance, it seems, is the strength of the club’s academy and the sophistication of its training facilities. The expectation is that within these areas lie expertise that the Chinese can learn from and import back home.
“The planning of new towns in China has sport at its heart,” explains Marriott of the synergy that Yunyi Guokai will hope to get from its new business. “This includes building facilities for children and adults. The West Brom training ethos can be a model for that.” This would suggest a different approach from the noughties Abramovich-esque approach to football club ownership. Rather than trying to grow the English club’s brand in new markets, the club’s expertise will be leveraged for the benefit of the domestic Chinese market. As Lai’s eco towns spring up, assuming the continued support of the state government, so might West Brom-affiliated training academies and local franchise teams.
Simon Chadwick is professor of sports enterprise at Salford Business School. He believes that Chinese investment in UK clubs, and specifically those in the West Midlands, could serve an even broader political purpose. “Recent moves are entirely consistent with other industrial sectors where we have seen a state-driven form of capitalism emerge in which investors and corporations appear to have been working in coordinated ways,” he says. “Add to this the British government’s active courting of Chinese investors, especially using football as a lever, and one can hypothesise a scenario in which Wolves, Villa and West Brom haven’t just been independently acquired for football reasons alone.”
What those reasons may be no one can be sure but the football investments seem consistent with other big deals in which Chinese companies have invested up to a billion pounds in restructuring Sheffield city centre and even helped finance Gary Neville’s luxury hotel in Manchester. Is this what Africans call stadium diplomacy, where the Chinese state funds new infrastructure (often sporting) in exchange for influence? “This is not stadium diplomacy,” says Chadwick, “but it is football diplomacy, or HS2 diplomacy, or Northern Powerhouse diplomacy or post-Brexit diplomacy. I think football is, in part, being used as a lever in Britain’s relationship with China. Football has always been a great networking channel, and the Chinese are already proving to be hugely adept at building and utilising the football network.”
The lever is being pulled just as West Midlands football sits at its lowest ebb in years, with only one team in the Premier League. It may not be a surprise to learn that, in the middle of this global soft power play, one group who have not necessarily had their needs considered are the supporters. Russ Evers, who runs Wolves’ biggest independent supporters group, the Hatherton Wolves, says fans have not heard much from the club since Fosun group took over. “The main thing that’s changed has been optimism,” he says. “We used to be linked to players from Barnsley and Oxford; now they’re talking about us signing a £20m player from Benfica.”
That player, the midfielder Talisca, has yet to arrive. Hopes are now set instead on Benfica’s 35-year-old centre half, Luisao. “It’s all about hope and the new owners have given us that,” says Evers, “Maybe it’s a gamble but they all are. It’s all hope, not belief any more. There’s every chance we’re walking into the unknown.”
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