Chinese tycoon Ai Yakang buys actress daughter Ai Ru a football team

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Chinese tycoon Ai Yakang buys actress daughter Ai Ru a football team

Chinese heiress and actress Ai Ru with members of the Sichuan Leaders Football Club. Pict
Chinese heiress and actress Ai Ru with members of the Sichuan Leaders Football Club. Picture: Baidu Baike Source: Supplied
WHEN the daughters of Chinese petrochemical tycoons need a bit of retail therapy, they usually ask Dad to buy them a flat in Shanghai, a Maserati or a yacht.

Ai Ru wanted a football team. Eight months and a flurry of corporate manoeuvring later, the 25-year-old actress and model has been granted her wish by her doting father, who has a successful lubricants business, a penchant for ice-white silk suits and a shrewd eye for politics.

The youngest executive in the Chinese football league by many years, Ms Ai is the president, spokeswoman, manager and ambassador of Sichuan Leaders Football Club, a third division side that has played only two professional games (won one, lost one) since being founded in February.

By her father's definition, Ms Ai is a businesswoman from a new Chinese mould: while coaches and other football veterans work on the players' skills, she says that for the first year or so she will devote 30 per cent of her time to management of the club and 70 per cent to nurturing her personal brand. She is negotiating for a role in a television drama in which she might play a "very beautiful psychopath".

On the eve of her team's first home game, she said that her energies would be devoted towards getting her squad to play as a team, building the players' confidence and creating a decent-sized fan base that she wants to run eventually into the tens of thousands.

Ultimately, she wants the team to enter the Super League, China's equivalent of the Premier League and an institution still so convulsed with scandal that many Chinese remain disgusted with football as a whole. Winning or losing is not, for the moment, Ms Ai's biggest concern.

As Ms Ai acknowledged between whispered phone calls to her theatrical agent, China's newest football manager does not have a background in football or management.

Instead, she pointed to an operational innovation for which she has great hopes: a system on her mobile phone that enables her to remain in constant instant messenger chat with her players when they are off the pitch. She is also working out how to have her team's matches, which will not be broadcast on television, streamed on to the internet, a move that could revolutionise the way that small teams with small budgets build support. This elicits a beam of pure pride from her father, Ai Yakang, a man who has a vast fortune and believes that he owes something to "the society that bestowed my wealth on me".

Ms Ai has been a fan of football since, aged 11, she stayed up late to watch all the games in the 1998 World Cup in France, and s he is not daunted by the challenges that face her. "I have a very strong feeling that in China in 2014, nothing is impossible," she said.

"China is at a time when great things are happening all the time. In industries across the whole country, there are managers doing things that they haven't done before and that the whole country is only doing for the first time.

"I think it is clear that football is going to become a big part of the way Chinese people entertain themselves. Certainly, it does not play the same role in people's lives as it does in Britain, but this is a very big country and passion for sport is almost seen as a patriotic thing."

Last year photos appeared in Chinese state media of the newly installed President Xi playing football. The pictures emerged just as China's new leader had begun waging a high-profile campaign against corruption and the Chinese football association was trying to cleanse its image as a hotbed of match-fixing and bribery.

"It was very striking because I immediately saw the message behind it," Ms Ai said. "I think that under Xi, Chinese football is going to have support from the government, so I told my father that he should buy a football team and he agreed with me. He always agrees with me."

At this point, Ms Ai's father felt the need to add his commentary. "She may look gentle, but she is incredibly strong," he said.

The Times

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