Berlusconi to sell AC Milan to Chinese investors

Murad Ahmed in London and James Fontanella-Khan in New York
Berlusconi sells AC Milan to Chinese investors

AC Milan are set to be the latest top-tier European football team to move into Chinese ownership after long-time owner Silvio Berlusconi said he had sold the club.

The former Italian prime minister and media magnate told local newspapers on Tuesday that he had sold one of Europe's most successful football clubs, after receiving assurances from the buyers that they would invest significantly to return the club to former glories.

Though he did not disclose the identity of those behind the purchase, Mr Berlusconi said: "Milan has now embarked on this path towards China.

"I accepted what was offered to me, that does not even take into account the value of the brand. But I demanded the commitment of the new owners, who are a group of leading Chinese companies, some also state-owned, to pay at least €400m over the next two years."

The two sides are still finalising the terms of the agreement, according to one person involved in the talks.

The sale comes as Chinese investment in European football has grown rapidly in recent times. Last month, Chinese retail group Suning Holdings paid €270m ($307m) for a 70 per cent stake for Inter Milan.

In March, billionaire Wang Jianlin's Dalian Wanda Group agreed a deal with Fifa to sponsor the next four football World Cups for an undisclosed sum. Last year, Wanda acquired a 20 per cent holding in Atlético Madrid football club for €45m. A consortium of Chinese investors paid $400m for a 13 per cent stake in Manchester City in December.

The dealmaking has the tacit approval of the Chinese state. Xi Jinping, China's president and an avowed football fan, has said he wants to make the country a football powerhouse, with the government this year approving a programme that aims to elevate China's national team to among Asia's best by 2030.

Silvio Berlusconi attends a football match between AC Milan and Juventus FC.
Claudio Villa | Getty Images

Mr Berlusconi, 78, bought AC Milan in 1986, when the club was on the verge of bankruptcy and he invested significantly in the squad. The following year, he hired Arrigo Sacchi, the coach who led the club to multiple trophies including back-to-back European Cup victories in 1989 and 1990, and created a team widely regarded as one of the world's best.

The sale of AC Milan marks the end of an era for many Italians. Mr Berlusconi's exit comes as the political fortunes of his Forza Italia party have been eclipsed by the rise of Matteo Renzi's ruling centre-left Democratic party and populist groups such as the Five Star Movement and the Northern League.

For decades Mr Berlusconi tied his personal success in business and politics to those of his club, which under his ownership won eight Serie A and five European Champions League titles.

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The entrepreneur, who was found guilty of bribing a senator last year, said that his legal troubles have created "other concerns" than the club.

"I have not followed AC Milan as in the past, and now I want to close a 30-year period, including 28 major successes, in the best way and I think it's important the choice of giving Milan away to somebody who is willing to invest in the club to get it back at the top in Italy and in the world," he said.

AC Milan finished in seventh position in Italy's Serie A last season, well outside the qualification positions for European competition that provide a vital source of revenues for Europe's biggest clubs. The club made a loss of €93.5m last year.

Last week, AC Milan appointed Vincenzo Montella, the former Italian international player, as coach.