Alibaba takes the field in sup­port of soc­cer

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By QIU QUANLIN in Guangzhou qiuquanlin@chi­nadaily.com.cn

The in­creas­ing in­volve­ment of Chi­nese businesses in the soc­cer in­dus­try, such as e-com­merce gi­ant Alibaba’s lat­est pur­chase of a stake in a top Chi­nese soc­cer club, is widely ex­pected to spur the sport in the coun­try.

On Thurs­day, Alibaba Group agreed to pay up to 1.2 bil­lion yuan ($192 mil­lion) for a 50 per­cent share of Guangzhou Ever­grande Foot­ball Club, the de­fend­ing Chi­nese Su­per League cham­pion owned by Chi­nese property gi­ant Ever­grande Group.

Alibaba’s in­vest­ment is part of a “strate­gic de­ci­sion” to in­crease the club’s cap­i­tal, the property de­vel­oper said. That also in­cludes bring­ing in 20 more share­hold­ers with 200 mil­lion yuan each.

“The in­vest­ment will even­tu­ally help boost the club’s strength and com­pet­i­tive­ness,” said Xu Ji­ayin, chair­man of Ever­grande.

In­tro­duc­ing Alibaba as a “strate­gic part­ner” is in line with ef­forts to im­prove Chi­nese soc­cer, Xu said.

“Team­ing up with an­other busi­ness gi­ant will pro­vide solid fi­nan­cial sup­port for the club’s de­vel­op­ment and help boost its pres­ence in the Asian arena,” Xu said.

The club will in­tro­duce more strate­gic part­ners to pre­pare for a pub­lic list­ing, he said.

“We are not in­vest­ing in soc­cer for the short term. We want to build a club that has a long his­tory,” Xu said.

Un­der hefty in­vest­ment from the property de­vel­oper, the Guangzhou club won the do­mes­tic ti­tle the sea­son af­ter it was pro­moted to the Chi­nese Su­per League in 2011.

Ever­grande broke China’s 23-year Asian ti­tle drought when it clinched the Asian con­ti­nen­tal club cham­pi­onship in 2013. It is seek­ing to de­fend its AFC Cham­pi­ons League ti­tle un­der Ital­ian man­ager Mar­cello Lippi.

China launched a pro­fes­sional league in the early 1990s but has yet to make its mark on the global soc­cer stage.

Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, also a big soc­cer fan, has made sev­eral pub­lic com­ments on his wishes for the game’s de­vel­op­ment — China reach­ing the World Cup, China host­ing the World Cup and, ul­ti­mately, China win­ning the cov­eted tro­phy.

Dur­ing his visit to Ger­many in March, Xi said China should fo­cus more on de­vel­op­ing and pro­mot­ing soc­cer among young people.

Peng Weiguo, a re­tired na­tional team player, said in­creased in­vest­ment in the sport from big businesses will help boost its de­vel­op­ment at home.

“The co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Alibaba and Ever­grande sets a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion for Chi­nese soc­cer — more busi­ness ty­coons are con­fi­dent about the soc­cer in­dus­try,” said Peng.

Fol­low­ing a na­tion­wide crack­down on soc­cer scan­dals in the past few years, in­clud­ing game-fix­ing and gam­bling, a grow­ing num­ber of top busi­ness groups have started in­vest­ing in soc­cer clubs.

More than 3 bil­lion yuan was in­jected in the Chi­nese Su­per League in 2013, with the funds mostly from top property de­vel­op­ers.

“The in­vest­ment is good, both for play­ers and coaches and the en­tire soc­cer in­dus­try, given that Chi­nese soc­cer has been slammed for quite a long time,” Peng said.

Peng, who trains young play­ers in the re­serve team of Ever­grande, said more funds are needed to de­velop new talent.

“More businesses join­ing the soc­cer in­dus­try have helped im­prove the do­mes­tic soc­cer en­vi­ron­ment in the past few years. I be­lieve that more young people will start play­ing soc­cer,” said Peng.

Ma Yun, founder and chair­man of Alibaba, said the e-com­merce com­pany is in­vest­ing in a “happy and promis­ing sport”.

“Soc­cer is a very charm­ing sport. In­vest­ing in the in­dus­try is more like in­vest­ing in hap­pi­ness. It is a ra­tio­nal ap­proach,” said Ma, whose com­pany is pre­par­ing for a multi­bil­lion dol­lar share of­fer­ing in the United States.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing that he knows lit­tle about soc­cer, Ma said the in­vest­ment was not only for Ever­grande, but also for Chi­nese soc­cer.

“Soc­cer should be a happy sport. And we want to bring a happy sport to people, to let them play soc­cer,” Ma said.

Chi­nese soc­cer fans also wel­comed the lat­est deal, say­ing that it could give the club ac­cess to Alibaba’s deep pock­ets to fur­ther build the team.

“It’s an al­liance be­tween gi­ants. We can see a bright fu­ture for Chi­nese soc­cer,” said Cao Xun­sheng, a Guangzhou na­tive.

QIU QUANLIN / CHINA DAILY

Ma Yun (right), Alibaba founder and chair­man, and real es­tate ty­coon Xu Ji­ayin cel­e­brate af­ter sign­ing a deal in Guangzhou on Thurs­day that will see Alibaba Group pay 1.2 bil­lion yuan ($192 mil­lion) for a 50 per­cent stake in China’s top soc­cer club Guangzhou Ever­grande, pre­vi­ously wholly owned by Xu’s property de­vel­oper Ever­grande Group, which gives the club its name.

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