June 15, 2013. The Chinese national team loses to Thailand, devoid of any football tradition, for 5-1. It’s a friendly match, but it’s played at Hefei Stadium, in Anhui province. And above all it is the day of the sixtieth birthday of Xi Jinping, recently became president of the People’s Republic of China. It may seem strange, very strange indeed, but to understand why theInter from Suning he is selling Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea for 115 million euros we have to go back to those days of eight years ago. Because it is at that moment, it is said, that football enters the Chinese government’s orbit of interest.
Lukaku sold by Suning? It all starts … in 2013
Without that defeat, perhaps, there would have been no sale of Lukaku because there might not have been a Suning property. Therefore, there may not even have been his purchase. In the People’s Republic the private economy also moves within a perimeter drawn up by the Communist Party. After that bitter defeat, Xi, already a great football fan, is convinced that China can replicate the great success already achieved with Olympic sports.
China, Project 119 to triumph at the Olympics
Yes, because in view of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the Chinese government had successfully prepared and implemented the so-called “Project 119“, by the number of medals available in certain sports disciplines put in the sights of the authorities. The program was developed after the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, when 119 medals were up for grabs in athletics, swimming, rowing, canoeing / kayaking and In that edition, Chinese athletes had only won one medal. The goal was to insist on training young athletes in those disciplines, along with perfecting those in which Western nations were traditionally more attackable. Result: at the Olympic Games at home China comes at the top of the medal table for the first time in its history and from then on it never comes off second place (risking to win again in the Tokyo edition that has just ended).
Xi tries to replicate the Olympic model also on football
Well, in 2013 China is convinced that it can replicate the model also on football. Sport from which little satisfaction had always come. So much so that the only edition of the World Cup to which the Chinese national team qualified was that of 2002, presumably only due to the absence of Japan and South Korea from the qualifications (already qualified as host countries). China is finally showing its ambitions to the world, for example by launching the B projectelt and Road, and does not want to be seen weak in such a popular sport worldwide.
The tap of the funds dedicated to football opens, both on the internal front and on the external front. The focus is on teaching in schools to nurture young talents, but players also begin to import (often, but not only, at the end of their careers from Europe and South America). The objectives, as often happens in China, are grandiloquent: to host a World Cup by 2034 and try to compete to win it by 2050.
Chinese investments in foreign football and Suning-Chinese government ties
Investments abroad are equally impressive. Between 2014 and 2017 Chinese funds and entrepreneurs invest over two and a half billion euros in European football clubs. Minority or majority stakes are acquired in top-level clubs such as Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Lyon, Espanyol, Southampton, Aston Villa, Slavia Prague. And, to get to Italy, obviously Inter and Milan.
Especially in the case of Suning, the investments for the Nerazzurri are huge. The growth policy bears fruit both off the pitch (with the constant increase in turnover), and on the pitch, with qualification in the Champions League in 2018 seven years after the last time to get to the Scudetto of the last May. The Zhang family is also involved in Italy on a “political” level. The young man Steven is part of the working group that favors the victory of the candidacy of Milan-Cortina for the 2026 Olympic Games (when Italy will take over from China and Beijing 2022). Pope Zhang Jindong, instead, it arrives in Italy on March 23, 2019 together with Xi Jinping and to another group of entrepreneurs for the signing of the memorandum of understanding on the Silk Road.
By the end of 2020, Suning’s investments had exceeded quota 700 million euros, but it is above all until the beginning of the first pandemic year that the Nanjing group still injects liquidity, for example by purchasing Christian Eriksen for about 25 million euros during the winter market. With a loss of 352 million euros, Inter is the Italian club to have spent the most on the market in the last five years. Then, something changes. And not just for Covid-19.
Because Suning is beating a retreat: Covid has to do with it only in part
A number of factors contribute to Suning’s financial retreat. Starting from the actual problems of the Nanjing company, which begins to suffer from the competition of the most technologically advanced internal competitors (such as Alibaba but not only) and that loses liquidity by participating at the request of the government in the rescue of the real estate giant Evergrande. But then there is a purely political aspect: since Beijing understands that the trade war is not just a trade war and the United States has targeted China not only for tariffs but for a much broader geopolitical discourse, the government decides to turn off the taps for all investments abroad considered non-strategic.
The signs of Parma and Pavia
Among these, also football. Ever since, in 2017, the authorities called investments in foreign football “irrational”. The hints had been about the failing experience of Li Yonghong to Milan, but also on the often forgotten events of Parma And Pavia. In both cases, after great proclamations, Chinese investors have practically disappeared into thin air. And, especially in the case of Pavia, from one day to the next without paying salaries and due.
The Chinese government’s change of course on football
Obtaining permits to move funds abroad has become increasingly complicated, even more so after Covid and, above all, after the turning point in the government’s economic policy. In October 2020, Xi Jinping announced the model of the “double circulation“, which essentially aims at achieving China’s economic self-sufficiency, which must be able to keep the internal situation stable without depending on external shocks.
Football was sacrificed. Within a few months, several companies disappeared, including even the Jiangsu (Suning’s Chinese team), which had just won the first championship in its history. The European and South American champions have left the Chinese championship en masse, while the hypothesis of hosting a world championship is still a long way off. Even the new FIFA Club World Cup, whose first edition should have been held in 2021 in China, has been postponed to a later date due to the pandemic.
The banners of the Inter fans? For Suning they are the lesser evil
That is why, today, Suning basically has its hands tied. A little because of him, a little because of Covid, a little (or a lot) because of the moves of the Chinese government: it will not be some banners or choirs that will be able to scratch the Beijing line and keep Lukaku, the hero of the scudetto, in Nerazzurri. The Zhang family may be sorry for the insults of the Inter fans, but for them they are the lesser evil.