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A Chinese tale for Birmingham

Birmingham City's St Andrew's stadium will provide the most raucous atmosphere to be found at any ground this weekend in the Barclay's Premier League. Bitter rivals Aston Villa are the Blues' opponents on Sunday and it's fair to say one can expect fireworks, writes John Dykes.

india Updated: Sep 11, 2009 23:15 IST
John Dykes

Birmingham City's St Andrew's stadium will provide the most raucous atmosphere to be found at any ground this weekend in the Barclay's Premier League. Bitter rivals Aston Villa are the Blues' opponents on Sunday and it's fair to say one can expect fireworks.

By the time the two teams meet again, on April 25, there is a chance England's Second City Derby match could stir a few million people up out here in Asia.

By the end of this month, the club could be fully owned by Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung's Grandtop International, provided he and his backers pass the FA Premier League's (FAPL) 'Fit and Proper Persons' test and, of course, provided they come up with the cash.

Should it happen, expect plenty of fiery patriotic rhetoric from the Grandtop team. After all, the company's chief executive, Vico Hui, has already told one newspaper: "We will become the first Chinese owners of a club in the Premier League.

“Our business will be idolised. We will be bringing glory to the Chinese people."

Grandtop, which already holds a 29.9 per cent stake in Birmingham, is throwing everything at this deal.

Citing a "very good relationship with the Chinese government" and, crucially, a strong working relationship with China's BPL TV broadcast rights holder, Hui aims to open Birmingham-themed shops and restaurants in China, initiate player exchanges between China and Britain and turn the Blues into the PRC's favourite club.

"Birmingham is the second city in the UK," said Hui. "The stadium has a good location near the city centre, and the council has plans for a new stadium. This is also a very attractive business financially.

“We are going to make sure Birmingham stays in the Premier league. That is our main priority."

For all of this to happen though, Grandtop must first complete the £81.5 million takeover.

According to one British newspaper, that is by no means guaranteed.

We should know by the end of September whether the Grandtop bid has been approved by the FAPL.

Provided it all goes through, it will be fascinating to see what inroads Grandtop and Birmingham are able to make into China, a country which has seen football going backwards over the past decade.

The biggest recent problem for the BPL was the awarding of exclusive TV rights to small digital broadcaster Win TV in 2007. After years of free-to-air broadcasts, Win tried to convince Chinese fans to pay premium rates to watch BPL football.

The fans refused, and boycotted the broadcasts to such an extent that viewership reportedly fell from 30 million in the free-to-air days to 50,000 or so.

The FAPL itself seems to have urged Win TV to do something about this. Win has also sold on broadcast rights to the biggest local channels nationwide.

This represents an absolute explosion of exposure for the league, and a scary prospect for the FAPL in terms of rights infringements, but for the likes of Carson Yeung, it could well prove to be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Will China take to a team that wears blue, rather than the more traditionally auspicious red?

Will Yeung's and his colleagues' close ties with China's football authorities enable Birmingham to be cast as "good guys" rather than as just another European club out to pillage and plunder a juicy market?

Time will tell, but first Grandtop need to seal the deal with both Birmingham's owners and the league itself.

There's more at stake this weekend than derby bragging rights and three points.