John Yan: 马云的足球挑战 Alibaba and investing in football’s future

Ma Yun and his company Alibaba, have arrived on the world stage. The company’s blockbuster IPO in New York on September 19 turned the company the second biggest internet company in the world. The evaluation of the company surpassed $220 billion after the first day on the market, for the following several days, even though there was a reasonable fall in its price, it still worth more than $210 billion.

Ma Yun, a former English teacher from Hang Zhou, the most famous self-made billionaire in China, has undoubtedly become the wealthiest man in China, and his recent involvement in football becomes more interesting and intriguing.

Three months before his E-business website Alibaba went on its IPO trail, Ma Yun surprised a lot of people to became the joint owner of Guangzhou Evergrande FC, getting 50% ownership of the club from Xu Jiayin, the real estate mogul – the former wealthiest man in China of 2011.

There had been a lot of rumors that Ma would buy up his hometown China Super League club, Hangzhou LvCheng FC, and the owner of Hangzhou FC, Song Weiping, was a close friend of Ma. However, Ma backed out from the Hangzhou FC deal, and after a reported 10 minutes mobile phone chat with Xu, he paied 1.2 billion RMB (close to $600 million) for half of Guangzhou Evergrande FC.

Ma is famous for his self-promotion and manipulation of media, he is a master of these tricks even since he started his franchise in 1999. Before his investment into Guangzhou FC, as football increasingly become a super rich man’s toy, there had been a lot of reports saying that Ma could enter the football business. He denied fiercely the link with Hangzhou FC, which didn’t have a strong presence in CSL, even by writing a note on his company’s internal social messaging board, explaining that the only experience he had with football, was when he in university, being pushed by classmates, he played half a match and score an own goal. In that note, Ma used his typical language to laugh at the low level of football in China, taunting the incapability of football administrators.

But his link with football is not a joke, and less than a month after his half-public note, he became a weird joint owner with Guangzhou Evergrande.

The purchase created great publicity for Ma and Xu – the local TV channel in Guangzhou even did a live broadcast of two billionaires contract signing news conference. When Guangzhou FC was playing at home against West Sydney Rangers in the AFC Champions League quarter final, Ma first appeared in a football stadium, and that was likely his first experience of a live match.

He would never let a publicity enhancing opportunity pass by, before the match, even his knowledge about football could be doubtful, he announced a ‘Men’s Prize’ of 20 million RMB (more than $3 million) to encourage his team to perform. Guangzhou won the match 2:1, but were knocked out by the away goal rule. When the final whistle blew, Xu was apparently disappointed, however, Ma seemed to be really enjoying the experience. Some comments media commented that he didn’t really understand the away goal rule and had thought his team had gone through to the next stage.

CSL and Guangzhou FC could gain him a lot of publicity, but that would not be enough, and as President Xi Jinping has consistently expressing his high hopes for football in China, the most successful businessmen in China would never ignore the orders from high above. According to latest news from Alibaba, Ma has started to set up a department in his company to focus on football youth development in China. The department will cover issues as football in schools, different age groups training, youth football competitions and etc.

Whether he really knows about or likes football, Ma’s involvement in football could be a short term positive for football in China, as the National Sport Administration has failed fundamentally in all aspects of football development. Football is more than business, entertainment or education, and simply by pumping cash into this social cause, would not be the ultimate solution. As shrewd as Ma is, he knows that simply by fawning upon the leader’s wishes would not guarantee the safety of his prosperity, he needs to build a wider platform to last.

John Yan is Deputy Editor of Contact him at moc.l1702227210iamg@17022272108002g1702227210naiqn1702227210ay1702227210, or on weibo at: