Thohir's black and blueprint for Inter

Inter Milan president Erick Thohir posing with the 2010 Champions League trophy in the club's trophy room. The Indonesian billionaire has plans for the historic Serie A club to return to their glory days, promising to invest in players and build a st
Inter Milan president Erick Thohir posing with the 2010 Champions League trophy in the club's trophy room. The Indonesian billionaire has plans for the historic Serie A club to return to their glory days, promising to invest in players and build a strong management team.PHOTO COURTESY OF FC INTERNAZIONALE

His decision to sell some of his stake to Suning is part of plan to grow club worldwide

For a football club that bears the honour of being the only Italian side to win a league, Cup and Champions League treble, last season was especially painful for Inter Milan.

The Nerazzurri cycled through three head coaches before finishing a disappointing seventh in the Serie A, which meant missing out on European competition.

That the tumultuous season came after Chinese company Suning Commerce Group purchased a majority stake in the club last year has led some to question if the new owners have the best intentions for the proud club, who will be in Singapore next month for the International Champions Cup (ICC).

But, in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times, Inter president Erick Thohir said the new owners are bent on returning the 18-time Serie A champions to their winning ways - pronto.

Thohir, who has been president since 2013 but reduced his stake in the club to around 30 per cent after the takeover, said: "Inter Milan are one of the top teams in the world. We have to play in the Champions League consistently.

"The management is making sure that we are trying to improve our team and reach our target as soon as possible. That means balancing things on and off the pitch. We not only have to invest in the players and build a strong management team to grow revenue, but we also have to succeed in other areas such as branding and infrastructure."

Pointing to the influx of Suning employees in Inter's management, he said the new owners are certainly not adopting a hands-off approach despite being based more than 8,000km away.

LONG-TERM INTERESTS

When a foreign owner comes in, fans have a lot of questions... So we have to prove to them that we are committed to building the team. It will take time for Asian owners to be successful, but already we have seen one at Leicester City.

ERICK THOHIR, Inter Milan president, on the challenges facing foreign owners of football clubs.

The new appointees include chief executive officer Liu Jun, a Suning vice-president, while Zhang Kangyang, son of Suning owner Zhang Jindong, sits on the board. Both are now based in Milan.

Thohir, 47, added: "I believe Suning has the commitment and resources to build a strong Inter and achieve our target of consistently playing in the Champions League."

On their immediate plans for Inter, he said: "We are going to add a few more players to the team. We are also increasing our presence in China with our first overseas store and more academies."

Inter are wildly popular at home and boasted the best average attendance in Serie A last season (47,172). But now they want to pull away from their rivals and build their brand further afield.

Thohir estimated that China is home to some 105 million Inter fans, about half of their 275 million fans worldwide. This, coupled with the recent football craze that is sweeping across China, made it a no-brainer to collaborate with Suning, said the Indonesian billionaire.

While he is enjoying his spell at the club, Thohir admitted there are challenges to owning foreign teams, particularly for Asian owners, who are still relatively new to the scene.

Singapore billionaire Peter Lim, for one, has endured a roller-coaster tenure at Valencia since purchasing the Spanish club in 2014. Said Thohir, who acquired a 70 per cent stake in Inter in 2013 - three years after the club's historic treble: "When a foreign owner comes in, fans have a lot of questions, like who we are and what we want to do. So we have to prove to them that we are committed to building the team.

"It will take time for Asian owners to be successful, but already we have seen one at Leicester City."

Leicester, owned by Thai tycoon Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, won the English Premier League (EPL) title last year. But Thohir is not envious of his Thai counterpart in the more lucrative and popular EPL.

He believes Italian football has three qualities which will help it endure - a strong fan base, a conveyor belt of world-class players and coaches, as well as a storied history.

The chairman of the 2018 Asian Games organising committee added: "We have to innovate, like adjust some of the kick-off times of matches to appeal to fans in a different time zone, and go on tours to help to build the brand of not just Inter Milan but Italian football.

"We're working with Serie A officials. We need to build on these innovations to make sure Serie A is strong again."

•This wraps up a two-part exclusive with Indonesian billionaire and Inter Milan president Erick Thohir.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'Thohir's black and blueprint for Inter'. Print Edition | Subscribe