On Chinese New Year this year, MOMS dropped into Birmingham’s Chinese Quarter to check out the festivities. As you’d expect, the dancing dragons and Chinese bangers in The Arcadian proved the highlight that the on-and-off rain couldn’t dampen, but something more low-key also caught the attention. On nearby Hurst Street, there was a tarpaulin draped row of street stores and amongst the culinary delights, Chinese massage and medicines on offer, was a small pitch representing Aston Villa.
Despite being staffed by some friendly people behind a fold-up table, it wasn’t really offering much apart from conversation and a prize draw. For a Premier League football club, it was a sorry-looking effort. It seemed the club were just there to fulfil an obligation, rather than become an active part of the celebration and really engage with the community event. Where were the claret & blue dragons?
While other clubs aggressively expand their supporter base overseas (e.g. Leicester City’s recent colonisation of Thailand), Villa can sometimes fail to embrace an opportunity that presents itself on its front doorstep. It reminded me of what a Manchester City-supporting friend said, when talking about his away trips to Villa Park. He reckoned that apart from the small club shop on the High Street, you struggle to see any real Villa presence in Birmingham. Adding, by comparison in Manchester, within 30 seconds of coming off the train in the city, you can’t fail to see United or City’s imprint on the city.
He has a point.
Fast-forward a few months and ironically, it seems the Chinese maybe about to educate Aston Villa in how to spread the claret and blue gospel, as they are in the running to potentially use the club to give credence to their own football mission.
As you’d have read in recent weeks, Villa are close to potentially sealing a new ownership deal. Press reports of Chinese interest, while hardly sacrosanct (considering some of the papers in question), do line-up with Villa chairman Steve Hollis’s mention of Far East interest at the recent Fan Consultation Group meeting that MOMS attended. Hollis also said that there were parties out there that potentially could have some major scale plans for Villa, mentioning in the same breath, the increasing Chinese governmental drive behind football, as an example.
His statement that followed last week seemed to mirror the sentiment.
“Parties that we believe have the passion and ambition to return the Club to winning the highest honours in European football,” said Hollis.
The Beijing Times reported that Villa allegedly have a preliminary agreement (non-binding agreement) with a £100m purchase figure lined-up with a mysterious Chinese company/consortium. Also, the paper mentioned a previous failed attempt last May by a Chinese consortium, who had visited Villa Park, but their £150m offer had broken down for some reason. It’s unclear, if the two are linked.
Various consortium names have been mentioned, but MOMS concern here is not the who, for they will reveal themselves soon enough, but the ‘why?’
In 2015, China took the position of world’s largest economic power off the United States, but when it comes to political, cultural influence and acceptance in the world, China still struggles to make in-roads outside of Asia.
To essentially market the country and extend its influence on a global scale, it is no secret that China is now fully focused on sport being its portal to do so, by achieving success and dominance in it.
When Beijing last year won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the Chinese capital became the first city to host both the Summer and Winter games. The success of the 2008 summer Olympics certainly opened the world’s eyes to the country and it is this kind of sporting outreach that has seen football mad Chinese president President Xi Jinping publicly proclaim that not only should China now host the football World Cup, but win it.
As we know, there’s nothing the football bodies (especially FIFA) like more than money and it’s no coincidence that last month The Wanda Group became the first Chinese company to sign up as a Fifa Partner, at a considerable cost that now puts them among the elite sponsors of football’s world governing body.
In a nutshell, this means the company holds the prime sponsorship rights for the next four Fifa World Cups, including the 2030 World Cup, which China is expected to host.
In tandem with huge scale national football youth development, the Chinese domestic league is now growing like never before. Once troubled by corruption and let down by a string of failed overseas poster boys, including Paul Gascoigne and Nicholas Anelka, it is a league reborn by the power of the Yuan.
Recently Russia had been a go-to place for leading Brazilian players to ply their trade, but China is now fast usurping it. To the extent, that it has the financial clout to outbid the major European leagues for leading players. Jiangsu Suning outbid Liverpool for Brazilian striker Alex Teixeira for €50 million, while former Chelsea midfielder Ramires also joined Jiangsu for €28 million.
The Chinese Super League clubs spent US$366 million* during the recent transfer window, nearly US$100 more than that of clubs in the English Premier League (*according to Transmarkt).
China are playing the long game, but it is now gathering rapid pace, scale and momentum.
So, where does Aston Villa fit into all of this?
Middle East Tactics
The Middle East provides the perfect model for how the Chinese seek to gain influence in football. Once the area was simply known for just desert and oil, but once the city’s infrastructure of hotels and roads were in place, the United Arab Emirates used football to market Dubai as the Gulf’s sports and tourist hub, to give it economic diversity to counter the day the oil runs dry. Such investment is ultimately more cost-effective, organic and productive than just simply advertising, as very few things in the world has such 24/7 media exposure as football.
Fast-forward to the present day, two of the Premier League’s major stadiums – the Etihad and Emirates – are named after United Arab Emirates airlines, with the later also the principle sponsor of the FA Cup.
While football has played a massive part of launching and validating Dubai as a business and tourist centre, China would have also noticed that investment in established European teams also helps build foundations and credibility for World Cup bids too. Look at Qatar Sports Investments buy out of Paris St German and Qatar Airways sponsorship of Barcelona, plus a certain Russian transformation of Chelsea. This certainly aided both country’s World Cup hosting bids.
After the Wanda Group, paid $52 million for a 20% stake in Spanish La Liga club Atletico Madrid, the Chinese are also already on the move when it comes to English football, it’s largely gone unnoticed by the wider football community, that the Chinese consortium, CMC, last year bought a 13% stake in Manchester City. If Aston Villa is the next step on the Chinese government cheerleadered expansion into football, it’s perhaps a logical one.
Villa is certainly ripe for picking. In many ways Aston Villa is in a similar situation that Manchester City was in prior to its purchase. A genuine big club at a cut-rate price, a large fan base with great international expansion potential, planning permission for Villa Park to be extended to a 50,000 stadium, and a rich history that perhaps hasn’t been commercially exploited as it could have been. This season’s relegation will be considered a minor obstacle, when you factor in the bonus of a £50m price reduction.
While frivolous to most Villa supporters, the fact that the current British Prime Minister and the next British monarch support Villa, will not be lost on the Chinese and it will not doubt be a delightful bonus to any acquisition.
Depending on the links of the potential buyer, there’s scope for Villa to have kinship with a Chinese Super League team, ala the way the Abu Dhabi United Group and the Chinese part-owners have set up the City Football Group that currently encompasses Manchester City, New York City, Melbourne City and also Japanese side Yokohama F. Marinos.
For better or for worse, Aston Villa may become a pawn in football Empire building, but at least in the short-term, it could be the primary concern of any network of clubs.
There’s been a slightly xenophobic reaction in some quarters to the news of potential Chinese buyers of Aston Villa, with some fans trying to play the fear monger by throwing up the example of what happened to neighbours Birmingham City due to their Asian owner experience with Carson Yeung.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the ‘Better the devil you know’ notion, when that devil has just relegated the club and cursed it in limbo for over half a decade.
You only have to look east across the Midlands to see the Thai revolution at Leicester City to see the potential spectacular fruits of Asian influence.
What the Foxes have achieved will not have gone unnoticed by any potential Chinese buyers, neither will the fact that the manager who built the very foundations of the Foxes success is currently available.
While Randy Lerner may have lacked direction, ambition and know how, a Chinese buyer, egged on by their country’s president, will not.
If a Chinese takeover is on the cards and it indeed involves a major player, future Chinese New Year celebrations in Birmingham could become very claret and blue indeed.
UPDATE 19th May: Villa will indeed be bought out by the Chinese Recon Group with the take over headed up by Dr Tony Xia. The Recon Group has substantial links with government departments (see below, from their website), reinforcing what has been written above.