When Steven Zhang became the youngest-ever chairman of Inter Milan in October 2018, it was merely the latest move in what seemed to be the takeover of European Soccer by Chinese investors.

As vice president of Suning Holdings Group, run and founded by his father Zhang Jindong, Steven Zhang was the driving force behind Suning’s acquisition of Inter and the latest investment into European soccer that many predicted would lead to China’s ascension to a superpower in world soccer.

With the Chinese Super League (CSL) investing heavily, and with Chinese investors leaning heavily into club ownership in Europe, it was almost inevitable that China would host a World Cup which was the stated aim of President Xi Jinping.

Then the world changed, and the COVID-19 pandemic reset the status quo in China. Due to the strain the pandemic put on the Chinese economy, foreign investment in certain industries was heavily restricted under a system known as ‘Negative Lists’, with investment in sports teams outside of China falling foul of this rule.

Suning suffered badly because of the pandemic. In 2018, the conglomerate was the second largest civilian-run enterprise in China, with the Suning.com subsidiary owning shopping malls, stores, and speciality shops and supermarkets.

However, by March 2021, 23% of the company was sold to the state-backed CITIC Group to improve the company’s liquidity and structure following the decision to borrow heavily after making a series of acquisitions before the pandemic – one of those being Inter.

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Initially, the project looked to be well funded, with the stated aim to return Inter to the top of the pile both domestically and across the continent. The likes of Romelu Lukaku, Christian Eriksen, and Achraf Hakimi were signed for significant transfer fees, accompanied by significant wages.

Success followed, with Serie A titles in 2020-21 and 2023-24, with a run to the Champions League final in 2022-23. While on the pitch Inter have seen success, off the pitch the reality is the club have had a cloud hanging over them for a while.

In 2022, the High Court of Kong ordered Zhang to repay $254 million in unpaid debts to the China Construction Bank and to submit himself to debtor examination. In essence, this is the Chinese state wanting its money back. In March this year, the court of appeal in Milan ruled that judgment is now valid in Italy.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Suning was one of the hardest hit companies in China, with the government implementing a ‘zero COVID’ policy, which impacted the business to the point that Zhang Jindong was effectively forced out of the company he founded following the bailout outlined above.

The knock-on effect for Inter was a lack of funding which meant that player salaries were not being paid, a major structural issue. At this point, Oaktree Capital Management stepped in, loaning Inter’s holding companies $298 million at 12% interest for three years.

That debt, over $400 million by the time it became due in May 2024, was not repaid which meant that Oaktree would in essence get Suning’s majority share of Inter.

Oaktree is, to all intents and purposes, the new owner of Inter, a similar situation to that of neighbors AC Milan, whom investment company Elliot Management took control of once Li Yonghong, who bought the club from Silvio Berlusconi, failed to repay the terms of his loan.

Much like Elliot, Oaktree Capital is in a tricky position. Inter have ‘unofficially’ been on the market since 2022 but no buyer has stepped forward with an offer of around $1 billion, which is the market value of the Serie A club according to Football Benchmark.

With AC Milan having been sold for over $1.2 billion, the expectation for Oaktree would be to secure a similar amount given the recent success of the club.

With a new media rights deal kicking in for Serie A, and the league growing in strength with finalists in European competition for the past few seasons as well as the aim to grow in the United States – Serie A recently announced a deal with Allied Sports to build a presence in the US market – the expectation for Oaktree will be to go the same route as Elliot and sell up sooner rather than later.

Oaktree will be looking at the US and the Middle East given the rate of investment from those two markets into European soccer, but Inter are likely to have to navigate more turbulence in the coming years.