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Business

Chinese investors wade into European soccer

FRANKFURT, Germany The sheer size of the revenues generated by soccer in Europe has made the continent's top clubs coveted prizes for investors from across the globe.

After the 2003 purchase of Chelsea by Russian oil mogul Roman Abramovich, money began pouring in from elsewhere in Europe, then the U.S., Southeast Asia, and more recently the Middle East. Now there is a new player on the pitch: China.

In buying Chelsea, Abramovich erased the previous owner's huge debts, restoring the club's financial health. He then went on a spending spree, recruiting top players and building Chelsea's reputation as one of England's, and eventually Europe's, best teams.

In 2005, American Malcolm Glazer, the owner of the National Football League's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, acquired English soccer powerhouse Manchester United. Three years later, local rival Manchester City was taken over by investors from Abu Dhabi. In recent years, City has outshone United in the Premier League.

Other European leagues have drawn plenty of interest as well. In 2011, a unit of the Qatar Investment Authority acquired Paris Saint-Germain, one of the biggest clubs in France, not wanting to be outdone by Abu Dhabi.

This year, Italian giant Milan and crosstown rival Inter were purchased by Chinese companies. Owners are eager to cash in on the hunger for the "beautiful game" among Asia's huge fan base.

Inter's acquisition by electronics retailer Suning Commerce Group offers nonstop fodder for the sports pages. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's most-read sports daily, the new owner wants Barcelona and Uruguay forward Luis Suarez, paired with Manchester City's Argentine striker Sergio Aguero.

The storied club has struggled since winning both the Scudetto and Champions League in 2010. In 2013, oil tycoon Massimo Moratti, whose ownership of nearly two decades was an affair of the heart, sold a big chunk of the team to Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir. But the infusion of cash failed to restore Inter to its former glory.

The new owners have not given up. "We want to take Inter back to the top of the world," said Zhang Jindong, Suning's chairman.

China's spending spree on soccer assets has been fueled mainly by the desire of Chinese President Xin Jinping, an avowed soccer fan, to turn the country into one of world soccer's superpowers.

In an interview with The Financial Times in July, Marco Bogarelli, director of strategy for the sports arm of Dalian Wanda, talked about his ambitious plan to launch a rival tournament to the UEFA Champion's League in cooperation with five domestic European competitions. Chinese investors are not content simply to own top clubs. Their goal is to host a new international tournament that will draw top players. It is a bold attempt to redraw the map of soccer in Europe and wrest control of the sport from UEFA.

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