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China’s forgotten dream

China’s forgotten dream


Five years ago, six Premier League clubs had Chinese owners. Now there’s only one left. What’s changed?


Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world of football. 

Today… the forgotten Chinese dream.


Cast your mind back a few years.

Back to when the Chinese Super League was attempting a rapid expansion. 

It’s 2017, and Chelsea’s Oscar (remember him?) has signed a deal with Shanghai SIPG – worth £400,000 per week.

“By far the most high-profile transfer to the Chinese Super League, Oscar left Chelsea in the January transfer window 2017 to join Port Shanghai football club for an Asian record transfer fee of 51 million pounds. This move surprised many, not because of the bananas transfer fee, but more because at 25 and in the prime of his career, Oscar is the youngest of all the world class players still more than good enough to be a success in Europe.” 


And Oscar wasn’t alone. 

Chinese clubs were paying top-level footballers exorbitant salaries to give their top division – established in 2004 – some prestige. 

Chinese businessmen were also ploughing money into European football clubs.

In 2015, President Xi Jinping was pressing for an expansion into the football world… and China was hoping to one day host a World Cup.

“I’m a football fan. Chinese football has made a lot of effort for a long time. But so far we have only participated once in the World Cup.”

France 24

And so when Gao Jisheng bought 80% of the shares in Southampton in 2017, he became the sixth Chinese owner in English football. 

But last week, he sold his controlling stake to a Serbian billionaire – Dragan Solak. 

“Serbian cable TV tycoon Dragan Solak, founder of United Group, has taken a controlling stake in Southampton. Solak is understood to be behind a new holding company which will examine offers for clubs in other international leagues…effectively this is replicating the same strategy as Manchester City’s owners have with the City Football Group.” 

Sky Sports

After that flurry of interest, that now leaves only one club with Chinese ownership in the Premier League… and that’s Wolves.

So what’s happened? 

Why has the Chinese boom turned to bust?

It’s a complex tale. 

But it appears that the Chinese government changed their stance on overseas investment. 

A 2016 report in the Guardian newspaper suggested these investments weren’t paying off. 

That… while 130 billion pounds flowed from China into overseas investments that year, the money coming into the country remained flat.

In short, the government decided that the country’s banking system was at risk… these were major overseas investments, many financed through borrowing from the banks.

An official directive issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017, specifically mentioned investment in overseas football clubs as one of the areas where investment would need to be restricted. 

Then there’s another issue – who are these investors?

Gao Jisheng owns Lander, a real estate company. 

He made his money from the Chinese property boom in the 1990s. But details are sketchy.

“Gao Jisheng is something of an enigmatic character. Whilst little is known about his early life, his personal website tells a rags to riches tale. He lists a number of former professions, including farmer, journalist and most intriguingly as an armed police officer.” 

Tifo Football

The Premier League initially blocked Gao Jisheng’s takeover of Southampton after he failed their fit and proper persons test. They found out he had been involved in corruption cases in China… twice.

But Gao Jisheng hired a team of top lawyers to register Lander with Companies House in the UK and said that he would use his own money to buy the stake in Southampton. The takeover went through.

Gao Jisheng initially said he wasn’t treating Southampton “like a pig to be fattened and sold.”

In actual fact it ended up the opposite. He sold the club for 100 million pounds… half what he initially paid.

So… will Southampton fans be pleased with the change in owner? 

Gao Jisheng didn’t take money out of Southampton, but he didn’t invest any money either. 

His hands may have been tied by restrictions on further spending from China. 

Southampton haven’t finished above mid-table in any of the seasons since Gao Jisheng arrived. 

And the new owner, Dragan Solak, is another interesting character. It seems like he may have more ambition than his predecessor.

The retreat of Gao Jisheng is a story about the cold hard facts of reality, rather than a Chinese dream paying off.

Today’s story was written by Chloe Beresford, and produced by Imy Harper.