Why China investment in Inter brings urgent need to scrutinise owners

ou might think Liverpool have had an underwhelming Premier League title defence. The mid-season collapse. The failed attempt to join a Super League. The strangely maudlin video address from the club’s owner, delivered in the style of a baffled senior executive apologising for an involuntary bladder malfunction at the company golf day. None of this is ideal.

But spare a thought for the reigning Chinese Super League champions, Jiangsu FC, who are nowhere to be seen four games into the new season.

Jiangsu do at least have an excuse. The Chinese champions no longer exist, having been dissolved by their owners in February and deemed too much of a liability to keep going, despite the 60,000-capacity stadium and the 63-year history.

“Jiangsu football club ceases the operation of its teams,” a statement from the appropriate arm of the club owner, Suning Holdings, announced, going on to thank the fans for their “solidarity”, the people who you know make it all worthwhile. Made. Used to make. Whatever.

And so the CSL has simply rolled on into the new season. Marouane Fellaini’s Shandong Taishan are top of Group One. Marco Arnautovic scored a hat-trick on the opening day and will presumably soon be using this as leverage for a lucrative switch to North Korea or Mars or Atlantis.

Oscar continues to see out the projected eight-year stint at Shanghai SIPG that will net him about £100m: a footballer manacled to his own hare-brained contract, but hanging in there all the same despite the recent salary cap that means his local teammates can earn at most a 10th of his wages.

Although, it should be said not everyone has simply moved on from the liquidation of the champions. There were awkward scenes on social media last week as Internazionale’s chairman, Stephen Zhang, celebrated the club winning Lo Scudetto, and was met with angry responses from Jiangsu fans who believe their club was in effect sacrificed at the altar of Inter’s absurd debts.

It is here that this story becomes more hair-raising. Suning also owns 68% of Inter, a club so up against it Italian media reported a recent missed payment to Manchester United on the Romelu Lukaku account. But Suning isn’t the only player here, or in any sense the most powerful.

Nobody seems to have noticed or taken any real interest, but as of the start of March operations tied to the Chinese government bought a 23% stake in Suning.

It is important to note why this happened. Suning is in financial trouble. The new part-owners are a state industrial arm. China is not interested in owning Inter for sportswashing or soft-power reasons. But the fact remains, the Chinese state is a part-owner of Inter. An arm of the Chinese government is, at one remove, the most imposing voice on the board of the Serie A champions.

There has been no real mention of this mind-boggling fact. Football has enough on its plate. Although given the furore over the prospect of the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund buying Newcastle, o Manchester City’s status as a PR tool of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, you’d think it might merit a mention.

That may yet come to pass. In a further twist, the Italian parliament is debating a motion on whether Italy should formally recognise that China is guilty of genocide on its Uyghur citizens, as opposed to merely violating their human rights.

And yes, this is football, a place where nobody is really clean, where ties can be found linking every investor to a dubious deal, every government to an armaments trail. But this is something more.

Pending that resolution, Italian football faces a scenario in which its champion team, the grand old regal Internazionale of Giuseppe Meazza, Sandro Mazzola, Ronaldo, Roy Hodgson, is part-owned by what its government considers to be a genocidal regime. The same government that disappears people and silences dissent, is underwriting Ashley Young’s wages. Which does slightly put the Glazer family crimes against effective fan engagement into some perspective.

Inter are in enough of a mess already. Javier Zanetti confirmed this week the club finances have been broken by loss of sponsor and match-day income. Reports suggest the players have been asked to consider a wage deferral. Lukaku could be returning to the Premier League, with Chelsea and City perhaps using him as an early stalking horse in the great game of pandemic-era super striker sales.

In the meantime China’s de facto, arm’s-length stake in Inter sits there, its implications largely unexamined. If Italy decides this is a genocidal state, how does its Football Association sustain this situation?

Are we expected to listen to Uefa’s vapid preaching on racism and prejudice, while allowing a club owned by a state that runs “re-education camps” to play in its premier competition? How would Mesut Özil, or other players who feel strongly on these specific matters, feel about taking the field with this entity?

These are theoretical questions, to which we know most of the answers. No doubt the Inter oddity will pass some time soon with the sale of the club’s dominant holding. Those who know say the CCP has long since grown tired of China’s sporting ambitions being used as a feeding ground for the hungry sharks of European football. That capital flight is being called home.

In the meantime, if these contortions tell us anything it is that there has never been more urgent need to limit and scrutinise exactly who gets to own our community sporting assets. One thing Inter’s ultimate minority owners would agree on: time for a little empowered regulation of that wild and promiscuous global free market.

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