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China's Suning close to buying top stake in Inter Milan - sources

People walk past a Suning appliance store in Beijing, August 11, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo
People walk past a Suning appliance store in Beijing, August 11, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

MILAN/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Chinese retailer Suning Commerce Group is close to buying a leading stake in top-flight Italian soccer club Inter Milan, with a deal expected as early as this weekend, two sources said on Wednesday.

Inter Milan is the second Serie A football club to attract Chinese interest, as Beijing pushes to turn the country into a soccer force by encouraging investment both at home and abroad.

Last month former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said exclusive talks had started with Chinese investors to sell a majority stake in Milan's other top soccer club AC Milan.

An acquisition of Inter Milan would add to a growing stable of Chinese-owned soccer assets worldwide, including a stake in the group that owns clubs such as England's Manchester City and New York City FC, and recently English club Aston Villa.

Suning, which owns local club Jiangsu Suning, is one of China's biggest private firms with annual revenue topping $20 billion. "A deal with Suning is expected around June 5," one of the sources said.

A second source said talks with the Chinese conglomerate were ongoing, adding Suning's final stake could be much larger than an originally mooted 20 percent.

Inter is controlled by Indonesian tycoon Erick Thohir. Former owner Massimo Moratti has a stake of just under 30 percent. Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera said on Wednesday Suning would buy 70 percent of the club, valuing it at 750 million euros.

Moratti, whose family controls Italian oil refiner Saras, would sell his whole stake, the paper said.

Suning declined to comment. Inter was not immediately available for comment.

Inter has fallen on hard times since its 2010 trophy treble, which included a Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich. The club finished fourth in Serie A last season to miss out on a lucrative Champions League place.

(Reporting by Stephen Jewkes in Milan and Adam Jourdan in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Elvira Pollina; Editing by David Holmes)

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