International Champions Cup Singapore

Football: Give Asian owners a chance, says Inter Milan chairman

As city rivals Milan splash cash, Inter chairman preaches prudence as the recipe for success

For decades, the top football clubs in Italy have been owned by powerful Italian tycoons.

Juventus, for example, had been in the hands of the Agnelli family (owners of auto makers Fiat) since 1923. And until April, when they were sold to a Chinese consortium, AC Milan were owned by the powerful politician Silvio Berlusconi for 31 years.

Their co-tenants at the San Siro stadium, Inter Milan, were owned by the Moratti petroleum magnates over two spells (1955-1968 and 1995-2013).

After reportedly blowing through €1.5 billion (S$2.4 billion) of his personal fortune on player transfer deals, former owner Massimo Moratti set the bar high in terms of spending for success.

Yet, his successor Erick Thohir does not believe that the cheque book can buy instant success. Although results have not been forthcoming since the media mogul's takeover in 2013, the Indonesian believes the Nerazzurri are spending wisely and are ready to finish in the top three in the Serie A this season.

Thohir spoke openly for 30 minutes in his suite at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, where Inter were staying during last week's International Champions Cup (ICC) Singapore.

The 47-year-old said: "If you remember, when I came into Inter Milan in 2013, we signed (with Uefa) the Financial Fair Play.

"This year, we have to balance between buying and selling players. Inter are in transition."

Yet their rivals are not waiting. Aside from Juventus, winners of the last six titles, fierce city rivals AC Milan are also awash with money after Berlusconi sold them to a Chinese consortium called Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux for €740 million.

WE'RE GETTING BETTER

It's a learning process but I really believe Asian owners are already showing good results. Look at what's happening at Leicester, Man City and PSG... Just give us time and support.

ERICK THOHIR, Inter Milan chairman, vouching for Asians owning football clubs in Europe.

Milan have since spent £160 million (S$287 million) on 10 players, including Leonardo Bonucci, Lucas Biglia and Portuguese forward Andre Silva, in the current transfer window.

In contrast, Inter's most notable capture was Slovakian defender Milan Skriniar, signed for £20 million from Sampdoria, and journeyman midfielder Borja Valero, a £5 million purchase from Fiorentina.

Not that Thohir, who is also a part-owner of National Basketball Association side Philadelphia 76ers and a co-owner of Major League Soccer club DC United, is about to splash the cash to keep up with the neighbours.

He explained: "AC Milan have a different strategy. They have a new investor coming in. The team they have before are a team they do not believe in. That's why they brought in so many players."

In Moratti's finest hour, Inter, then coached by Jose Mourinho, won the treble of the Champions League, Serie A and and Italian Cup in 2010. And, once the fans tasted such sweet success, they naturally wanted more.

However, the club have not qualified for the Champions League since 2013. Last season, they finished seventh, missing out on the Europa League, too. Still Thohir insisted on the need for financial prudence, and will not spend more than the club's revenue this season.

"It doesn't mean I didn't believe in the team," he recalled.

"But at that time, many of our players were getting older - Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Samuel, Cristian Chivu. That's why we bought players like Danilo D'Ambrosio, Gary Medel, Ivan Perisic and Geoffrey Kondogbia to replace them."

There is optimism that Inter will soon be a major force again. And that positive thinking stems from Thohir's sale of a majority stake in the club to Suning Holdings Group from China for a reported US$427 million (S$581 million) in June last year.

Suning's largest shareholder and founder is China's 28th richest man, Zhang Jindong, who is said to be worth US$4 billion by Forbes.

Thohir, who remains Inter's chairman, is proud of the alliance with Suning.

The Chinese company launched an Inter Milan edition television set in Nanjing last week in collaboration with Samsung. The TV sets feature the club crest and come with a streaming service that replays Inter games on demand.

Inter also have three academies in China, while there is one each in Argentina, Brazil and Japan.

According to a study published last year by consulting company Nielsen Group, Inter have 106 million supporters in China. To put that in perspective, the Asian superpower nation's most popular club, Real Madrid, have 127 million fans there.

Thohir said: "It is the reality - Inter Milan have at least 105 million fans in China. And everybody looks at China as the big market. This is why, after three years in Inter, I decided that it's very good to have Chinese partners.

"The club's revenue is higher now because of the Chinese market and also due to Suning's help, as they are China's biggest retailers. These are the things that are creating more income for Inter."

Inter are not done with the summer transfer window yet. Thohir revealed that Spalletti is on the lookout for fullbacks, but will not spend more than £100 million like what Manchester City did for Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker.

He said: "Suning have tripled our budget. They brought us Joao Mario (€40 million from Sporting Lisbon), Antonio Candreva (€22 million from Lazio), Gabigol (Gabriel Barbosa, €29.5 million from Santos) and Roberto Gagliardini (on loan from Atalanta).

"We have to be smart at the transaction table. Spending big money will not guarantee you the Scudetto. You have to be smart."

Still, Thohir risks the wrath of the fans if they miss out on a top-three finish this campaign.

With Valencia fans expressing their unhappiness with the club's owner, Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, and Cardiff City fans resenting Malaysian tycoon Vincent Tan, the Indonesian feels that Asian owners should be given more time to prove themselves.

Thohir, who is friends with both Lim and Tan, reasoned: "Give Asian owners time to run this business.

"To Asian owners, sports investment is something new compared to our friends from Europe and the US. The European owners have been in this business for more than 100 years. (The Asian owners) are only around for 10 years or so.

"It's a learning process but I really believe Asian owners are already showing good results. Look at what's happening at Leicester City (owned by Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha), Manchester City (Abu Dhabi's Khaldoon Al Mubarak) and Paris Saint-Germain (Qatar's Nasser Al-Khelaifi).

"Man City and PSG are in a different league because they are backed by governments but, still, people see the club owners as Asian.

"I really believe Asian owners are on the right track. Just give us time and support."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline 'Give Asian owners a chance: Thohir'. Print Edition | Subscribe