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Wanda returns home; new horizons for football in Dalian?

After a three-year hiatus, the long-awaited return of Dalian to Chinese top-flight football didn’t get off to the best of starts with a 0-8 thrashing in Shanghai to SIPG. However, WEF’s Johan van de Ven takes a look at the political and business machinations spearheading the city’s return to the CSL to see if Wanda can restore Dalian to its former glory.

Dalian is proud of its undoubted status as China’s number one football city. It’s first professional team was the dominant force in Chinese football, winning eight titles between 1994 and 2005.

The club was originally known as Dalian Wanda from 1994 to 1999 before Shide took over the team and the name and ran the club until it’s untimely demise at the end of the 2012 season after owner Xu Ming was arrested on charges of bribery and corruption. However it has never really been established why Shide went out of business, nor their relationship with Dalian’s other, newer club, Dalian Yiteng (formerly Aerbin). Some reports state that Aerbin took over Shide, however whilst it may be the case that Aerbin acquired some assets, generally Yiteng are not seen as the successor club to Shide – this honour belongs to China League One’s Dalian Transcendence – at least according to the Blue Wave, one of China’s most respected and long-standing fan groups who insist Dalian Yiteng is not a continuation of Shide.

However, when Dalian Aerbin was relegated from the China Super League in 2014 and owner Zhao Mingyang was forced to sell to little-known local conglomerate Dalian Yifang Group, it seemed football in Dalian had finally rock bottom. There were whispers at the time that Wang Jianlin was involved – he is a shareholder of Yifang. But now, Wang’s Wanda Group, which first sponsored Dalian’s top-flight team in 1994, is making no secret of its intention to put its stamp on Dalian football once again. A spokesman for the company said that while “the equity transfer cannot be processed this year, the club will be named after the company.”

The move comes after Wanda sold all but 3% of its 20% holding in Spanish club Atletico Madrid, despite sponsoring the redevelopment of La Peineta, which has served as Atleti’s home since the beginning of the 2017-2018 season. The move to La Peineta, officially known as the Wanda Metropolitano, has caused some financial difficulty for the club, with widespread rumours pointing to a fire sale of the playing staff. Following the sale of Wanda’s shares, this rumour has turned into reality: Belgian international Yannick Carrasco and Argentine winger Nicolas Gaitan were sold to Yifang for around $55 million.

While Carrasco in particular instantly becomes one of the CSL’s elite attacking players, Yifang does not have a particularly strong foundation of Chinese players – vital to success under current CSL rules. Only Zhou Ting and Zhu Ting have played more than 10 games for the national team, but Zhou has not made any appearance since 2004, while Zhu has not since 2012.

Any move into the overheated market for Chinese talent will say a lot about Wanda’s thinking in returning to the domestic football scene. In 2015, Evergrande chairman Xu Jiayin criticised Wang Jianlin for investing in European football rather than putting his money behind the domestic game. While Wanda’s purchase of FIFA-linked sports marketing firm InFront has been portrayed as aiding China’s football objectivities, Wanda’s slow-burn acquisition on Yifang represents a fundamental change in Wang and Wanda’s approach to football investment.

Although Xu’s criticisms may have given Wang some pause for thought, there are two factors that may have influenced his decision to return to his previous pursuit as an investor in local football. One is local demand in Dalian for a major funder to step in in an effort to turn around the city’s football fortunes. But another is the influence of the Xi administration. Firstly, as Wang recognizes, developing political patronage is crucial to business success in China. Failure to secure Xi’s patronage can have devastating consequences, as CEFC’s Ye Jianming and Anbang’s Wu Xiaohui have found. Moving back into domestic football may be Wang’s effort to avert the fate faced by these men, instead showing himself as a loyal foot soldier. More mundanely, it also represents Wanda’s compliance with tightening curbs on “irrational” investment, among which football features prominently.

The reasoning will not matter much for Dalian’s football faithful. For them, Wanda’s takeover of Yifang is the first steps away from the pall that has hovered over this proud football town for the last five years.

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