Owner of Inter Milan asks fans to have 'patience and trust' despite recent losses

Suning to Inter Milan fans: Have patience
Suning to Inter Milan fans: Have patience

The owner of Italian soccer club Inter Milan is asking fans to have faith in the team as it works to turn things around.

"Have patience and trust in the club – I know fans love the club from their heart," said Steven Zhang, a vice president at Suning, the Chinese firm that bought the team last year, in a rare, exclusive interview with CNBC. "For sure, we will try our best, and we will do it step by step … You cannot really change the result of the game in one month, one game."

Inter Milan is one of the world's most famous soccer clubs, but the team has seen better days. It's an uphill battle, with an aging playing squad, a recently sacked coach and defeats in its last eight league games. And fans aren't happy — over the weekend, thousands walked out in protest 20 minutes into a match, unfurling a banner: "Since you are not deserving of our support, we say goodbye and we go to lunch."

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Improving Inter's performance is a challenge Suning inherited when it purchased a 70 percent stake in the club for $300 million last June. Since then, Suning founder Zhang Jindong has sent his son, Steven, to Milan to oversee those efforts.

The younger Zhang, who said he wasn't initially a soccer fan, is now so plugged into the sport that he immediately lights up when talking about Inter. He said he was looking far into the future for ways to build the team for posterity — focusing on the youth academy, upgrading training facilities, and looking into cutting edge technology to scout and analyze athletes.

"Of course the next game is important, especially if you own Inter, a club that has so much power and so much responsibility," Zhang said. "But in order to succeed, I always think investing in ... long term strategies is what's most important for this club."

Finding synergy also means finding the right talent. It's rumoured that Inter tried to lure former Italian internationalist and current Chelsea manager Antonio Conte with big money. But after winning the English premiership, Conte doesn't look likely to leave his post, shuttling Inter back at square one in its search. At the moment, Zhang says he's open to options.

Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte celebrates victory
Getty Images | ANTHONY DEVLIN | Stringer

"Any choice is possible. Of course the coach is very important for a team," he said. But "we need people, players and management who really stay … and play for the club with their heart and spirit."

When asked how much money Suning would be willing to invest in the "Nerazzurri," Zhang said the strategy and vision behind the club was far more important than the amount spent.

Suning got its humble start in 1990 distributing air conditioners, morphed into a retail giant both online and offline and diversified into in real estate, financial services and media. The company also owns a top Chinese soccer club, Jiangsu Suning.

For Zhang, 25, his move to Italy is an experience that is likely meant to prepare him to lead the family business someday. While young, he already has big vision, and shoulders seriously his commitment to Inter's fans.

"I have no doubt that the team will perform well soon," Zhang said. "It's a huge, huge responsibility … for myself, personally."