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Soccer: Jets seek take-off under Chinese owner after turbulence

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The flood of Chinese cash reshaping world soccer has not only swept up some of the game's biggest clubs, coaches and players but also found more humble investments like Australia's Newcastle Jets.

The battling A-League club was bought by China's Ledman Group for A$5.5 million ($4.34 million) last year, a trifling amount compared to the fortunes lavished for minority stakes in big European teams, but enough to make the Jets the first top-flight side wholly owned by a Chinese foreign investor.

Led by CEO and avid soccer fan Martin Lee, the Shenzhen-based optoelectronics company already sponsors the Chinese Super League and owns naming rights to the Portuguese second division, Ledman LigaPro.

With such backing, hopes were high for the 2007/08 champions from the port city north of Sydney to rise up after years of underachievement and administrative turmoil.

Lee was hailed as a 'saviour' of a team that had been propped up by Football Federation Australia, the national soccer governing body, after fallen coal baron Nathan Tinkler was forced to relinquish ownership under a pile of debt.

Instead, the team promptly crashed to the bottom of the 10-team competition in the 2016/17 season, with two coaches sacked during the campaign.

Two months out from the new season, hope has sprung again with the appointment of new coach Ernie Merrick, who guided local powerhouse Melbourne Victory to the 2006/07 and 2008/09 championships.

But Lee has not quite been the open chequebook that some fans might have hoped for.

"We'll spend the most, in my knowledge, that the club's ever spent on players," Jets CEO Lawrie McKinna, a former striker for Scottish Premiership club Kilmarnock in the 1980s, told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

"We're still not going to be matching the (A-League's) big boys."

The Jets needs to pad out their roster with new talent but the owner's insistence that at least one Chinese player be represented has proved a challenge.

Newcastle's busy port ships millions of tonnes of coal to China every year to feed the country's insatiable energy demand, but bringing in one suitable Chinese footballer has been surprisingly difficult.

Unheralded Chinese midfielder Ma Leilei filled the quota last year but had a limited impact in his 15 appearances.

The Jets trialled midfielder Zhu Zhengyu, a player on the books at Chinese Super League club Shanghai SIPG, who are managed by former Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas.

Although a "nice lad", Zhu was not up to standard and sent back to China.

"His physical ability to stand up to the Australian game was miles away," said McKinna, who has spent nearly three decades playing and coaching Down Under.

"He wouldn't have been your first 15 player .... Not nearly as good as Leilei."

The Jets have two more Chinese players to trial but McKinna conceded they might have to wait until the January transfer window if unable to find a suitable recruit by October.

Having a Chinese player makes good sense for a businessman like Lee, given few are playing anywhere overseas and foreign-based footballers generate attention back home.

SCARY MONEY

Yet, where Chinese players once sought their fortunes abroad, now they have become too well-paid to leave home.

"It's scary money," said McKinna, who coached the defunct Chengdu Blades and CSL club Chongqing Lifan during a stint in China from 2011-12.

McKinna caught up with two of his former players during a promotional visit to China last year.

Where they might have earned about $30,000 under McKinna's charge, their salaries had improved to about A$800,000 ($630,640) net.

"And these boys would just be squad players in Australia," said McKinna.

"They wouldn’t be starting players here.

"One of them took me to the airport in his red Porsche four-wheel drive ... It's just gone right through the roof."

The sums might be smaller in Australia but money is the hot topic at the moment, with A-League clubs and the local FA bitterly divided over the spoils from a record television deal signed last year and overall governance of the competition.

The dispute has reached the point where a joint delegation of FIFA and Asian Football Confederation officials landed in Sydney this week for talks to try to end the impasse.

In a provocative open letter over the weekend, FFA chairman Steven Lowy said more than half the A-League clubs were wholly or majority owned by "foreign individuals and organisations with little or no connection to Australian community football or our national teams."

Yet, the FFA had no hesitation taking Lee's money when handing over the Jets last year.

"When I approached (the FFA) to say I’ve got a potential Chinese investor last year, they couldn’t get him in here quick enough," said McKinna.

($1 = 1.2686 Australian dollars)

(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

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