Sochaux provides cautionary tale for clubs

PARIS • The Chinese company that bought French football club Sochaux-Montbeliard never looked like a great fit when carmaker Peugeot sold out last year after 87 years of ownership.

The buyer is a maker of LED lighting and managed a property for the People's Liberation Army in Shanghai - not obvious qualifications for reviving a team trying to haul themselves back into the top French league after being relegated two years ago.

 Now, Li Wing Sang, the chairman of Hong Kong-listed Tech Pro Technology Development, faces bankruptcy proceedings.

The company's share price has fallen 92 per cent since a short seller's attack in July, closing yesterday at HK$0.17 (S$0.03) a share, a loss of more than US$1.7 billion (S$2.34 billion) of market value.

In August, a Hong Kong court froze some of Li's assets, according to Tech Pro, which said the personal matter did not affect the company.

"We don't understand Peugeot's decision to sell the club to this investor," said Fabrice Lefevre, president of one of Sochaux's supporters clubs.

"It took us just a few hours and a few clicks on the web to find enough bad things to make us strongly doubt this sale."

The saga in the industrial city of Montbeliard in eastern France highlights the risk that a wave of Chinese investment in European football - including more than US$2 billion in completed or planned deals since last year - will bring buyers with questionable credentials.

Chinese investors have agreed to buy teams including AC Milan and Inter Milan in Italy, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa in England and Espanyol in Spain. They have also taken minority stakes in English club Manchester City and Spanish giants Atletico Madrid.

All those teams except Villa play in their countries' top divisions.

"When Li bought the team, he said he had big ambitions and was ready to build a big team, to get us back to the first division," Lefevre said, adding that the chairman had said he was ready to invest as much as €100 million (S$153.20 million) in the club.

A few million euros would allow the club to build a proper roster, Lefevre said.

"Well, we've not seen it," he added.

During the close season, more players exited Sochaux than joined it. The club are now lacking players in some key positions.

Tech Pro sees itself as aligned with Chinese President Xi Jinping's campaign to turn his nation into a football superpower.

In a statement last month, the company said the club have sufficient funding and that it is ready to give additional support if needed. However, the fans are no convinced.

"We have no assurance that Tech Pro will ensure the sustainability of the club," said Mathieu Triclot, a fan. "The lack of investment in the primary team is glaring."

Ten games into the 38-game season, Sochaux have three wins, six draws and one loss, and sit in sixth place - lower than the third-place spot that qualifies for a promotion play-off.

"We are not beginning this season as favourites for promotion," said Lefevre. "And I fear we don't have the depth in the team to achieve it."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2016, with the headline 'Sochaux provides cautionary tale for clubs'. Print Edition | Subscribe