China Digest | New fears over AC Milan ownership

Weekly round-up of sports business news from the Chinese sports industry.

New revelations raise concerns over Chinese ownership of AC Milan 

An explosive New York Times investigation into the finances behind AC Milan’s Chinese owner that found missing hard drives, shuttered rooms and maggots squirming inside the premises of one of the firms purported to be involved has heaped more pressure on Li Yonghong and his Rossoneri Sport Investment group.

The piece lays bare the public records available on Li, severely undermining claims made by Li to the club, including the assertation that ”the mining empire he described to Italian soccer officials was hardly known even in mining circles.”

Rumours have swirled that, in a worst case scenario, Li may be forced by the Chinese government to sell the club and bring any proceeds back to China, but with the ownership structure technically offshore, it’s unclear how that might happen.

Li is known to have a sizeable loan coming due next year to vulture fund Elliott Management, and having spent a huge amount on players this summer, it’s also unclear how Li hopes to raise the necessary funds.

Added to this complicated, but alarming, look at the finances behind the deal, what is crystal clear is that Milan fans should be very worried indeed.

Trump comments extend UCLA 3 saga

The saga of the UCLA 3 has dragged on for another week, with President Trump escalating the incident on social media following the return of the trio to American soil.

LiAngelo Ball – younger brother of LA Lakers’ Lonzo and son of attention-seeking LaVar – along with teammates Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were finally released from effective house arrest in Hangzhou last Tuesday after they had been caught shoplifting from a high-end mall near their hotel.

On their arrival back in Los Angeles, Trump first encouraged them via Twitter to thank him for securing their release – which they did – then called on the players to also thank Chinese President Xi Jinping, before finally calling LaVar ungrateful for not crediting him with negotiating the return of the players, adding that he “should have left them in jail”.

Ball Sr then responded on CNN and again refused to thank Trump, meaning that the saga may well continue to drag on.

It’s worth remembering that Chelsea also suffered a PR disaster in China this summer: here’s a look at how the two incidents compared.

Lippi in 2030 World Cup gaffe

China’s national team football coach Marcello Lippi has let the cat out of the bag – perhaps – by saying that China plans to bid to host the 2030 Fifa World Cup.

Lippi made the comments in an interview with Chinese media, according to the Chengdu Business Daily.

However, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) rejected this, saying that they had not yet announced which World Cup China would bid for and denying that Lippi had even given the interview in question.

It’s widely known that China is interested in hosting the World Cup as soon as possible, but the subject of a bid for 2030 is sensitive, because, under current rules, nations from Asia would not be able to submit a bid until 2034, since AFC representative Qatar hosts the 2022 tournament.

However, Fifa guidelines would allow an Asian bid if none of the other bids were considered strong enough, and, while that’s unlikely, you can be sure that China is exploring every possible avenue for submitting a bid for 2030.

German tour disrupted by Tibet protest

Meanwhile, the start of China’s U20 national football team’s schedule of friendlies against fourth-tier league sides in Germany was disrupted by half a dozen protestors who hung a handful of Tibet flags on the sparsely-populated terraces.

Given that the match was being televised back in China and that the flag typically supports a separate Tibetan state – one of China’s hot-button issues – the players refused to continue until the flags were removed.

That massive overreaction to what was a perfectly peaceful – and legal – protest on German soil has now ensured that many more protestors and media will turn up for China’s next game.

Despite the high-level backing of the football initiative, with German Chancellor Angel Merkel signing a five-year agreement with China’s vice premier Liu Yandong, three of the teams in the league had already refused to play the Chinese side, protesting the fact that the remaining 16 teams are each being paid €15,000 for their troubles.

Two national women’s teams to be formed

In other football news this week, the CFA said it plans to establish two national women’s teams – the Red team and the Yellow team.

Unlike the CBA’s plans for the national men’s basketball twin teams, the CFA pair will not be equal, with the Reds lining up as the first string while the Yellows will form a reserve side.

Elsewhere, Hong Kong FA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe has criticised media for effectively encouraging fans to boo the team’s anthem – which is the same one played for the mainland Chinese team – due to their widespread coverage of the negative reactions, with one outlet broadcasting the anthem live from inside the stadium despite not having permission to do so.

Sutcliffe was equally critical of “fans” paid to turn up to counter the protests, pleading “if you’re not bothered about the football, just stay away.”

NHL puts 2022 plans on ice

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says it’s “hard to envision” the league’s players returning to China for the Olympics, despite the organisation venturing into China for the first time this year in the long run up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Previously, it had been assumed that Bettman would allow the players to return to the Olympics in a little over four years’ time, after sitting out next February’s Olympic tournament in South Korea.

But in an interview with Sweden’s SVT Sport, Bettman raised the possibility that NHL players may have left the Olympics for good.

International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel wasn’t quite so pessimistic, although he said that both he and Bettman would probably have to retire before an agreement between the two bodies could be struck.

Also this week…

Further reading…

The China Digest is written by Mark Dreyer, who runs the China Sports Insider website, which features sports business news and analysis related to China’s fast-growing sports industry. He has worked for Sky Sports, Fox Sports, AP Sports and many others, and has covered major sporting events on five continents, including three Olympic Games. He has been based in China since 2007.

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