Earlier this week, English football received a gentle reminder that foreign investment comes at a price.
If news the Carabao Cup third round draw would be taking place in Beijing was not bad enough, confirmation it was scheduled for 4.15am BST sent social and traditional media commentators into meltdown; the type of which has not been seen since Pep Guardiola ditched traditional touchline attire for pumps and drainpipe slacks.
Okay, so the decision (Carabao’s not Pep’s) smacks of commercialism, tramples over tradition and brings back bad memories of the Premier League’s ‘39th Game’ proposal not so long ago. But should we be surprised? Probably not. And is it a slap in the face for English football? Absolutely no.
Chairman, players and supporters have, for many years now, been happy to accept finance from the Far East. Gone into a state of almost orgasmic frenzy at the merest mention of yuan, roubles or baht. Seemingly, however, we expect overseas business people or corporations to lavish huge sums of money on our clubs but leave decisions regarding how it is spent well-alone.
At this point, it is important to remember that not all English owners are perfect. Neither are those who hail from further afield necessarily ruthless or driven by ulterior motives. Yet, although there are always exceptions to the rule, it never ceases to amaze me how easily folk lap-up the PR guff spouted by individuals who suddenly purchase a team and then tell all anyone who cares to listen how it has always been in their blood. Hailing from thousands of miles away does not stop prevent you developing an attachment to a particular club. It is just funny that, despite their vast wealth, they did not travel to watch a match in the flesh until the negotiation process was underway. Make no mistake, these buy-outs are about cold-hard cash and money-making opportunities. Very little else.
This issue is particularly pertinent at Sheffield United where, as various sponsorships and development projects around their stadium suggest, the Chinese are circling. Yet, because of a move strangely ignored by the British media, takeovers of English sides by individuals or firms from the People’s Republic could soon become much rarer. Potentially, even, things of the past.
China’s State Council, the country’s chief administrative authority, decreed last week that Chinese investors must now seek Beijing’s approval before putting their money in projects abroad. Some outbound investment, in areas such as agriculture and hi-tech research, is being “encouraged.” Other types, including entertainment and sports clubs, have been placed on the “restricted” list.
It forms part of a campaign to curb “irrational overseas investment” and, according to a report in the South China Morning Post, is designed to place pressure on “aggressive dealmakers such as Fosun International and Dalian Wanda Group.” Fosun, in case you have forgotten, own Championship rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers. The writing was on the wall in December when China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, in tandem with its National Development and Reform Commission, explicitly warned they would “closely monitor irrational investment in real estate, hospitality, movie theatres, entertainment and sports clubs.”
The steps, which some believe are designed to protect China’s financial security and bolster support for its “Belt and Road Initiative”, are said to carry “greater weight” than previous directives according to most well-informed observers. Because, to put it simply, they were devised at the very top.
English football is unlikely to have seen the end of Chinese money. Even if it has, parties from India, Singapore or Thailand are likely to step into the breach. But, make no mistake, if we are happy to accept foreign cash, expect many traditions to perish. I’m not complaining. Simply saying. The Carabao Cup draw might just be start.