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Wang Jianlin Hopes to Narrow China’s Football Gap As He Buys Stake in Atletico Madrid

Billionaire Wang Jianlin is now in the European football business after buy a 20-percent stake in Atletico Madrid. (Xinhua/Wang Lili)
Billionaire Wang Jianlin is now in the European football business after buying a 20-percent stake in Atletico Madrid. (Xinhua/Wang Lili)

Billionaire Wang Jianlin is now in the European football business after buy a 20-percent stake in Atletico Madrid. (Xinhua/Wang Lili)

The announcement of Dalian Wanda Chairman Wang Jianlin’s purchase of a 20-percent stake in Spanish La Liga side Atletico Madrid on Wednesday comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed the business dealings of the 60-year-old over the years. In fact, the question might be what took him so long?

It has long been rumored that the billionaire was interested in buying a stake in a European club, with reports in the past saying that Italian Serie A side AS Roma or Southampton of the English Premier League was in his sights.

Now, Wang becomes one of the few Asian businessmen to either have a stake or full ownership of a club in Europe along with Peter Lim (Valencia), Tony Fernandes (Queens Park Rangers), Vincent Tan (Cardiff City) Erick Thohir (Internazionale) and investment groups from Abu Dhabi (Manchester City), Qatar (Paris St. Germain), India (Blackburn Rovers) and Thailand (Leicester City).

While Wang could have taken his money to invest in a club in the Chinese Super League like the country’s richest man, Jack Ma Yun, the 52-million U.S dollar deal with the reigning Spanish league champions makes sense.

Wang already has a relationship with Atletico Madrid. And it is this relationship, according to Wang, that ultimately swayed him to make the deal. The Wanda Group, under its “Future Star Program,” currently funds the youth football training projext which has 90 of the brightest Chinese players in Spain and that number is to expand to 180 come 2017.

With Wang’s purchase of a stake in Los Rojiblancos the development of Chinese youth players will only receive an added boost. It will also be interesting to see what players are produced as he and the club work together to develop a youth center with a combined investment of 34 million U.S. dollars.

While the deal is a win-win for Wang and Aletico, as they will most likely receive many offers for sponsorship deals with other Chinese companies which could reduce their debts, one concern is how much influence will Wang have in the boardroom when it comes to issues such as player transfers and will he try to persuade the his fellow board members into signing some of the current crop of players who are already in the national team?

This move would follow in the footsteps of a former football club owner who believed his position could open up opportunities for players from his home country.

In 2007, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra made the headlines as it was announced that he had taken ownership of Manchester City. While he and Sven-Goran Eriksson (the current manager of Shanghai SIPG) made some good signings that made the team competitive, the surprising news during the transfer window was the clubs signing of three players from Thailand.

While there is no doubt the three players are capable of playing game as they all represent the Thai national team, the concern in this case was the owner overstepping his boundaries and insisting on signing players who did not have a shot at making the first team. It is the coaching staff that will have a better idea as to whether certain players can contribute to making the team stronger and challenge for titles.

In the end, as Thaksin was forced to sell the club, the three players were immediately released from their contracts having not played a single game.

While it is still too early to tell what Wang has in store at Atletico Madrid besides his involvement in developing Chinese youth players, it looks unlikely that he will force the club into signing any Chinese players unless he is sure that they can strengthen it as they compete with the likes of Barcelona and cross-town rivals Real Madrid.

It will be interesting to see how the fortunes of not only Atletico Madrid but also football in China change as Wang takes the gamble in European football.

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