HONG KONG — The new, high-rolling Chinese owner was supposed to return Inter Milan to its glory days. It spent heavily on prolific scorers like Romelu Lukaku and Christian Eriksen. After five years of investment, the storied Milan soccer club is within striking distance of its first Italian league title in a decade.
Now the bill has come due — and Inter Milan’s future is suddenly in doubt.
Suning, an electronics retailer that is the club’s majority owner, is strapped for cash and trying to sell its stake. The club is bleeding money. Some of its players have agreed to defer payment, according to one person close to the club who requested anonymity because the information isn’t public.
Inter Milan has held talks with at least one potential investor, but the parties couldn’t agree on a price, according to others with knowledge of the negotiations.
Suning’s soccer aspirations are crumbling at home, too. The company abruptly shut down its domestic team four months after the club won China’s national championship. Some stars, many of whom chose to play there instead of in Chelsea or Liverpool, have said they have gone unpaid.
the ambitions of Xi Jinping, China’s top leader and an ardent soccer fan, a new breed of Chinese tycoons plowed billions of dollars into marquee clubs and star players, transforming the economics of the game. Chinese investors spent $1.8 billion acquiring stakes in more than a dozen European teams between 2015 and 2017, and China’s cash-soaked domestic league paid the largest salaries ever bestowed on overseas recruits.
But the splurge exposed international soccer to the peculiarities of the Chinese business world. Deep involvement by the Communist Party make companies vulnerable to sharp shifts in the political winds. The free-spending tycoons often lacked international experience or sophistication.
Now, talks of defaults, fire sales and hasty exits dominate discussions around boardroom tables. A mining magnate lost control of A.C. Milan amid questions about his business empire. The owner of a soap maker and food additive company gave up his stake in Aston Villa. An energy conglomerate shed its stake in Slavia Prague after its founder disappeared.
Suning’s plight reflects “the whole rise and fall of this era of Chinese football,” said Zhe Ji, the director of Red Lantern, a sports marketing company that works in China for top European soccer teams. “When people were talking about Chinese football and all the attention it got in 2016, it came very fast, but it’s gone very fast, too.”
Suning paid $306 million in 2016 for a major stake in Inter Milan. Suning is a household name in China, with stores stocked with computers, iPads and rice cookers for the country’s growing middle class. While it has been hurt by China’s e-commerce revolution, it counts Alibaba, the online shopping titan, as a major investor.
contribute to China’s sports industry.
Boasting about Suning’s “abundant resources,” Mr. Zhang promised the club would “return to its glory days and become a stronger property able to attract top stars from across the globe.”