Reports are flooding in that the purchase of legendary Liverpool Football Club by a Chinese business tycoon, Kenny Huang, is imminent
By Joel Quenby
The head of Hong Kong–based investment firm QSL Sports Ltd made waves in 2009 by bidding for the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA team (the Americans didn’t play ball). This time, Huang is reportedly on the brink of a US$559-million deal for the most successful club in the history of English football.
Is this Phase One of China’s Impending World Takeover kicking off? Only kidding—Huang is after a global, “one-man-created sports empire,” according to China Sports Today blog editor, Maggie Rauch. Liverpool’s (non-Asian) fans might be jittery at the prospect, though. When it comes to running Premier League teams, Asian bosses have a distinctly unpredictable (if highly limited) record…
Russian oligarchs, American high-flyers, even Icelandic bankers, have owned Britain’s best football clubs. By comparison, back in May 2007, BBC Online thought it “surprising that it has taken so long for Asian wealth to make itself felt in the Premiership.”
Asia’s brands were investing, with South Korea’s Samsung sponsoring Chelsea, while Malaysia’s AirAsia got cozy with Manchester United. The subcontinent’s players—like South Korea’s Ji-Sung Park at Man. U—started to become regulars in Premiership lineups. However, off the pitch, potential Asian overseers of Premier League clubs remained in the shadows.
“Perhaps they have been more risk averse and slower to react than US investors,” Harry Philp, from Hermes Sports Partners, told the BBC. “It is more of a first step for many Asian investors.”
The absence likewise puzzled those soccer pundits with in-taxi experience of Southeast Asia, where the passion-cum-obsession for English football is especially strident. Then in June of 2007, a certain Thai mover-and-shaker—famed for both his snappy reactions and love of risk-taking—got involved.
He had already had a sniff at both Liverpool and Fulham, while serving as prime minster. Being deposed and fleeing to Britain evidently freed up more of Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra’s time for football. The billionaire sealed a $126-million buyout of Manchester City, becoming the first Asian owner of a Premier League club.
His foes howled that the whole game was just a face-gaining mission. Thaksin, meanwhile, maintained his formidable track-record of “making things happen.” His first post-PM public appearance saw Thaksin take center stage—hosting a Thai concert/buffet attended by thousands of cheering fans in Manchester’s main city square (even closing the event with a rousing Karaoke version of the team’s anthem, “Blue Moon”).
Thaksin continued causing an early splash. The Maine Road faithful even took him into their hearts, for a spell—after his policies briefly spun magic at Maine Road.
Hiring much-loved ex-England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, pumping millions into the club’s coffers (and endorsing a spending spree), then witnessing his new team win their first game under his tenure, all helped Thaksin’s standing on the terraces tremendously.
However, all things must pass – and sooner rather than later, in Thaksin’s case, when his reputation back home soured. Little wonder that Thaksin sold Manchester City to investors from Abu Dhabi in September 2008, about 15 months after he bought the club. (By then the team’s patchy form was underlined by backroom infighting; it seems Thaksin’s strong-arm tactics did not prove popular in the boardroom of a Premier League club.)
A few months later, political pressure saw him banned from re-entering Britain. We can only speculate that the estimated $150-million profit Thaksin made on the sale of the club may have compensated for the indignity.
None of this is to suggest that Mr. Huang has a comparable record to his controversial club-owning predecessor, of course. These words are meant to form an indulgent glance back at a rather farcical (hopefully unrepeatable) episode, rather than any cautionary tale. Hong Kong’s Carson Yeung has been presiding over Birmingham City since Thaksin’s time, anyway.
However, by (reportedly) offering to pay off Liverpool’s (alleged) $556-million debt, (apparently) fund their transfer kitty, and then (rumor has it) build the club a brand new stadium—in return for total control of the team—Kenny Huang certainly looks like he means business.
Whether that business ultimately proves risky on Merseyside, only time will tell…