With a joke, Jack Ma rubbishes AC Milan buyout

BEIJING • China's richest man Jack Ma yesterday laughed off reports that he is set to buy Italian football giants AC Milan, posting a convoluted joke online mixing basketball and football.

"Is AC Milan in Italy's Milan?" the Alibaba founder posted on his verified Weibo account, China's equivalent of Twitter. "I heard Tyson of the Lakers went to Milan. I'm not sure whether it's AC Milan. If so, Yao Ming of the China Super League will suffer!"

National Basketball Association legend Yao is retired and has never played in the Chinese Super League, the country's top football competition.

Ma followed his comment with three laughter emoticons and a link to a report that he is set to buy a majority stake in the Italian Serie A club from disgraced former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But Ma, who is worth more than US$33 billion (S$44.5 billion) according to the latest Bloomberg Billionaires ranking, did not explicitly deny the report.

Italian media reported on Wednesday that the 51-year-old was recently in Italy and was wined and dined at a trade fair by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who said that "the future of Italy and Alibaba are intimately entwined".

The Alibaba group already owns a 50 per cent stake in Chinese and Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao.

Media tycoon Berlusconi turns 80 later this year and has been looking to offload his long-held stake since early 2014, shortly after his conviction for tax fraud.

With Milan having missed out again on Champions League football for next season, there is mounting speculation that he is preparing to cut his losses.

The club are estimated to have lost €91 million (S$139 million) in the 2014-15 season and have reported debts of around €250 million. Berlusconi has priced the seven-time European champions at around €1 billion.

Negotiations with a consortium led by Thai businessman Bee Taechaubol appear to have broken down.

American sports dealmaker Salvatore Galatioto told Gazzetta dello Sport earlier this month that he was acting on behalf of both Milan and a "very ambitious" Chinese group with a view to tying down an accord.

Internet entrepeneur Robin Li and industrialist He Xiangjian, who like Ma are among the richest men in China, have also been named in the Italian press as possible members of the consortium - but there has been no comment from any of their respective representatives.

According to Wednesday's Italian reports, the would-be Chinese bidders are offering €400 million for a 70 per cent stake, and Berlusconi's holding company Fininvest is taking the offer seriously.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2016, with the headline 'With a joke, Jack Ma rubbishes AC Milan buyout'. Print Edition | Subscribe