by Ludovic EHRET, June 20, 2017
(AFP) - Chinese investors have spent millions acquiring storied European football clubs such as AC Milan, Inter Milan and Aston Villa. But when Europeans finally took a stake in a Chinese club they aimed lower. Much lower.
A group of Spanish investors, including the former president of Barcelona, recently bought into the team of the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT), making them the first Chinese club with foreign investors.
The team are languishing in the third division and when the Spaniards arrived they found overweight players who had the habit of eating sweets during games.
The Spanish group, CSSB, has great ambitions for the team after acquiring a 29 percent stake for an undisclosed amount.
The Spanish company was founded by two Barcelona veterans: ex-president Joan Laporta (2003-2010) and ex-general manager Joan Oliver (2008-2010).
"We would like to implement the same system as in FC Barcelona, especially the development of the youth academy," said Lola Sanchez, general manager of CSSB China.
CSSB's move stands in stark contrast to the Chinese investors who have taken over legendary Italian clubs AC Milan and Inter Milan, English Premier League West Bromwich Albion and former European champions Aston Villa.
They have also bought stakes in a slew of other clubs, including Atletico Madrid and Manchester City.
Chinese clubs, meanwhile, have paid tens of millions of dollars to bring foreign stars to the Chinese Super League.
President Xi Jinping wants his country -- which is 82nd in FIFA's world ranking -- to host the World Cup one day, and win it.
It could take a while.
- Pork and sugar -
On a recent hot afternoon, BIT players worked on passing drills on their campus's synthetic pitch under the gaze of their new Spanish head coach, Roberto Ahufinger del Pino.
The average age of the players is 23 and most of them are students.
"One of the important things we want to change is their mentality," Ahufinger said. "We want to make them winners."
He shouted instructions to his players in Spanish, which an interpreter then translated into Chinese.
Five Spaniards are now based in China, including three coaches and a sports director from FC Reus (Spanish second division), another club owned by CSSB.
"The first few months were quite difficult, but little by little we got the club and the players to abide by our ideas," Ahufinger said.
Sanchez recalled that when they took over the team "most of the players were very fat".
"They ate whatever they wanted, like sweets in the breaks during matches," she said.
A Spanish nutritionist has put them on new diets. Pork and sauce-rich dishes have been eliminated and replaced with chicken, fish, shrimp and boiled vegetables.
"It's healthier and more scientific," 25-year-old He Zichao, a defender and marketing student, said, noting that he appreciates the new Iberian vibe.
"Before, the club inspected our rooms and imposed a lot of rules," He said. "The Spaniards are easygoing, but in return, they expect that you're 100 percent on the day of the match."
- First division goal -
China is making efforts to improve its football rapidly. The number of football academies is expected to increase from 13,000 to 40,000 in 2020 -- with the goal of making the country a world football superpower by 2050.
"Everybody knows China has a lot of potential to grow," Sanchez said. "We think that the Chinese football, from our point of view, the Chinese clubs are not developing football in the way that they should be developed.
"What we need and what we want is to manage the club, to have the power of decision in the club. If you don't have a stake in the club, that's impossible."
The goal of the Spanish investors is to elevate the team to the second, then the first division.
"If we get there the value of the club will increase greatly," Sanchez said. "And so too will the value of our stake."
Luo Bin, BIT's vice-general manager, said the team would not have been able to raise their level if they had remained 100 percent Chinese.
"We sold in order to benefit from the most advanced concepts in football worldwide," Luo said.