China’s Ke Hua Sports steps in with cash at Lokeren but deal raises integrity alarm bells

January 27 – Belgian second-division club Sporting Lokeren has partnered with Chinese consortium Ke Hua Sports in a bid to stave off relegation, but the move has raised eyebrows over the integrity surrounding the deal.

Last season, Lokeren were relegated from the Belgium top flight, but there was little reprieve for the club in the second tier of the domestic game who sit bottom of the league and have just five matches left to avoid the drop.

On Friday, club chairman Louis de Vries, who succeeded long-time strongman Roger Lambrecht, announced that Lokeren had struck a deal with Ke Hua Sports, a Chinese company with football academies and sports centres.

“I am pleased to report the news that Sporting Lokeren is partnering with the Chinese group Ke Hua Sports,” said de Vries at a news conference. “That agreement consists, among other things, in the fact that talented Chinese players will move to the Waasland club with number 282. On the other hand, Sporting Lokeren will become the instrument for further spreading European football expertise and knowledge in China.”

Lokeren, a provincial club in need of modernisation, has long struggled to find investors, is burdened by debts, is limited facilities and a small fan base. The club is currently banned from the transfer market following financial irregualrities.

“We actually wanted to flesh out this deal a bit more and keep it from the public eye a little longer, but the pressure on myself and Sporting Lokeren had become just a little too big in recent days,” explained de Vries. “That is why we are announcing the news now, in consultation with our Chinese partners, about our cooperation with the Ke Hua Sports group.”

The club president said the Chinese know him from his days as a player agent, but stressed that Lokeren will remain in Belgian ownership. A short-term cash injection should ease life at Lokeren. “There will probably be a short-term entry from the Ke Hua Sports group,” said de Vries. “It concerns a purchase of a few shares, but all of that still needs to be worked out. Sporting Lokeren, however, remains a Belgian club. A possible relegation, which we certainly don’t think of, won’t prevent this agreement. A payment from China is coming soon. A little earlier than agreed, given our current situation, which gives us more room to maneuver and in this way we want to have the transfer ban lifted as soon as possible.”

Local authorities received a Chinese delegation, but didn’t directly discuss potential Chinese investment in the club. The talks centred on youth development and a partnership with local schools. Lokeren mayor Filip Anthuenis said that the Ke Hua Sports group “is not known by local authorities.”

Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1600970262labto1600970262ofdlr1600970262owedi1600970262sni@o1600970262fni1600970262