Any English club would do, so Xia got Villa

LONDON • It did not matter which English football club Tony Xia bought, just as long as he got one.

The Chinese businessman was so keen on an acquisition that he wrote to bankers expressing interest in Premier League team Southampton.

That was days before completing his £60 million (S$103.87 million) deal last May to buy Aston Villa, who are in the second-tier.

"It wasn't just Southampton, we also held discussions with a lot of clubs," Xia said in an interview in Beijing last week.

He agreed to buy Villa after striking up a relationship with the club's former owner, American billionaire Randy Lerner.

The almost arbitrary nature of the purchase offers an insight into China's blossoming relationship with the world's most popular and richest game and the seemingly insatiable appetite for assets that has continued into this year.

It follows President Xi Jinping's endorsement of a plan to develop China's sports economy and, in particular for the football-loving leader, a national team that might one day win the World Cup.

Since then, businesses have poured billions into the sport, with some of the country's richest men grabbing clubs abroad.

"Even if we didn't buy Villa, we would have entered the sports industry through other means," Xia, chairman of Recon Group, said. "Now that we have control of Villa, we will leverage this opportunity and use it to further our business in the sports industry."

His sudden arrival in England mirrored that of other Chinese buyers. Almost all the major clubs in the West Midlands region of central England are now owned by investors from Asia.

Typically, chairmen and owners of English teams steer clear of getting involved in on-field matters. Not the 40-year-old Xia.

He is a regular on Twitter, sometimes sending multiple messages a day to share his thoughts on player trading and the Championship team's performances.

The plan is to one day help support Mr Xi's dream of building a winning team.

"I'd like to figure out one day how to help Chinese football," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2017, with the headline 'Any English club would do, so Xia got Villa'. Print Edition | Subscribe