Chen Yansheng (Pumei, Guangdong, China, 1970) speaks slowly and his voice is very low. The pink shirt peeking out from under the dark Mao-collar jacket contrasts with a formal demeanor that suddenly changes as journalists move away from strict business issues and toward the passion side. It is then that he relaxes, when his lips draw a smile and the sentences are no longer short and concrete, leading his interpreter, Mao Ye, CEO of Espanyol, to lengthen the translation. Chen Yansheng, toy tycoon founder of Rastar Group, who has been known simply as Mr. Chen since he took control of the blue and white club, doesn’t bother when asked about his origins, how humble he is. “I have nothing to hide”.
- Take a look back.
- My parents were farmers. I was born and raised with my sisters, one older and one younger, in a very small town in southern China. It’s called Pomei. My father passed away when I was 25 years old. It was then that I became independent. I started entrepreneurship at a very young age.
- How did you build your toy empire?
- I was a lucky person. It coincided with a good time in China and I took advantage of the country’s decades of growth, where there were many opportunities. Based on Chinese philosophy, with a stable family, everything is prosperity. I always had a family that gave me a lot of support, and also prosperity. That helped me a lot to get started.
- What toy changed your life?
- [Sonríe y su gestualidad cambia]. An electronic soccer ball that spun itself and that I created in 1995. At that time it was very innovative. But I had great success in 1998, coinciding with the World Cup in France, with a ball that had music incorporated. It was a complete success. It was a hanging ball. You gave it a touch and it started to sound: “Hey, hey.”
- What is money worth to you? Is it the same that is granted in capitalist culture?
- Money is a tool that can help you fulfill your desires, but you have to understand that it is just that, a tool. Every person should follow the happiness of him. Like in soccer. I like it. The money helps me to be closer to football. In our company, the best-known product is cars (radio-controlled, scale, replicas for children…). As I was saying, I started by creating an electronic soccer ball. But I also love cars. That’s why I also decided to make them as toys, for collectors… I remember when Real Madrid, in the 90s, commissioned me for those cars, for merchandising or gifts that the club gave to its guests. As a thank you, Madrid asked me what I wanted. And I asked for Raúl’s shirt. I still have it on display in my toy factory.
- Where does this interest in football come from?
- From a very young age I was attracted to football. He comes from family. My father was a great fan, and we, his children, watched the games with him. Of all the world.
- Did you save Espanyol from ruin?
- I would not say so much as that I saved him, but rather that I was guided a lot by my happiness. I approached Espanyol because I liked football. Coincidentally, after a visit to Barcelona and after I fell in love with the city, I found out that there was this opportunity at Espanyol. You don’t have to chase money, but your vocation. Make your vocation, your hobby, make you earn money.
- Seven years ago he bought Espanyol. He promised that he would take him to Europe. The team qualified for the Europa League, but was later relegated only to be promoted again shortly after. And now?
- It has been seven very intense years, with many experiences and also many ups and downs. When I arrived, the main difficulty was the financial and sporting situation of the club. In the first years we made a great effort to clean up Espanyol, we built the sports base. Then we reached the Europa League, but we immediately suffered relegation, in the midst of a pandemic. There have been extraordinary events, but they are ups and downs that greatly enrich the experience.
- A sports club, where feelings and history converge, can it be managed like a normal company?
- Football has this peculiarity. This is a football club, but also a company. Whether we like it or not, these two legs are closely linked.
- You have made a very important investment in Espanyol. If we compare the turnover of the Premier League with that of La Liga, do you regret having invested in Spain and not in England?
- Other factors motivated more investment, not so much economic. I like football, I like Barcelona. I feel very represented with the values of Espanyol. I don’t know if an English club will attract me in the future. But today I think I was right to invest in the League.
- Are you satisfied with the management of Javier Tebas at the head of LaLiga?
- From a management point of view, LaLiga does quite well. And Javier Tebas has taken many measures so that the championship is prosperous in the medium and long term. He is a very good president. He has promoted many control regulation norms, much-needed measures. Without clear rules there can never be future prosperity. Espanyol respects these rules and we try to do everything possible to adjust to them.
- What differentiates you from the Arab sheikhs and from the club-state model?
- I don’t look like anything. It is incomparable. And Espanyol has nothing to do with that type of club.
- And what about philosophy? Other sole proprietors take on extravagance.
- The path that Espanyol has to follow is to take firm and progressive steps. We cannot stay still. Standing still is the same as backing down. But if you try to make a big jump you can fall. And the fall is very hard. The safest and most stable thing is to take firm steps, however few they may be. But we are sure that they help the club to move forward.
- How did you experience the years of political turmoil? process? Did you worry that the political clash would end up affecting Espanyol?
- In our club we are diverse and transversal, it is something very positive. The Blue and Whites unites us and the passion for a football club that engages, precisely, because of its uniqueness and its respect for all those who feel the força d’un sentiment.
- In all this time, what have you learned or surprised about Spain and Catalonia? What has caught your attention the most?
- We are going to talk about similarities, that sometimes we give more importance to the differences. The great similarity of Barcelona and Catalonia with the place where I was born is the culture of the sea, of the coast. Coastal societies are much more open. In China it is considered that they are more receptive to what is different, to what is outside. I haven’t noticed a big cultural difference.
- The Chinese soccer team is ranked 78th in the FIFA ranking, between Uzbekistan and Gabon. This year he will not play the World Cup either [sólo ha participado una vez en su historia, en la edición de Corea del Sur y Japón en 2002] Why does Chinese football not evolve? Does the Chinese government help investments like the one you made with Espanyol to take place?
- This is an investment abroad. But the development of Chinese football has been somewhat stagnant in recent years due to the pandemic, even due to the generational change of its players. The national team has not been a good generation. It has had very poor results. But the Chinese government’s commitment to sport is there, it wants to promote sports activity at the national level. At the same time, for more than five years there have been six restricted investment sectors for Chinese capital abroad, and football is one of them. This limitation is still there.
- What has been the impact on your business group caused by Covid and now by the war in Ukraine?
- In China, the sector most affected by the pandemic has been sports. In our group we have not had a very significant impact.
- The hiring of striker Wu Lei was a great bet for the penetration of Espanyol and the Spanish League in China. What assessment do you make now that he has already left? At the time it was said that his arrival would have a great impact in terms of business expansion. Was it a good experience or was the impact less than expected?
- I make a very positive assessment. Wu Lei was a very professional player. He put all the facilities to come. When he had minutes, he tried to do his best. And this last season, already with fewer minutes, he said to return to China so that Espanyol had more room for maneuver in this summer market. He proposed it because he considered that he had finished his stage. He himself considered that the club needed more reinforcement than occupying that file. Wu Lei came to Espanyol in his splendor. He was the Golden Ball in China, the top national scorer, and his team was champion of the Super League. It was then the best time to renew for his club and ask for a salary increase. But he preferred to come to Espanyol earning less.
- Espanyol now has to manage the situation of Raúl de Tomás, the star of the team who, despite wanting to leave, has not been able to.
- Although he has shown that interest in leaving and has had to stay, he is an important asset for the club.
- Has Espanyol increased its value as a club since you bought it?
- We haven’t made a market valuation, but my feeling is that the club is now worth much more.
- Have you had many offers to sell it?
- Direct contacts, no. They are rumours, just people talking.
- He spoke of the philosophy of small but firm steps. I don’t know if he is aware of the expectations of the Espanyol fans. Can it be a source of frustration in a sport where immediate success is required?
- Of course I understand the fans, because I am a fan myself. The sentimental football part I understand perfectly. But from management, we must take the path that we believe is good for the club, and in the long term. Through the work we trust that the fans will see the results. And, in the long run, you will understand that this was for the best. At least we can say that Espanyol will not sell assets to sign, and will not have to sell players to pay debts as in the past.
- When running a club from a distance [Chen Yansheng no viajaba a Barcelona desde febrero de 2020]Isn’t there a danger of losing perspective?
- About that aspect… I understand it in two aspects: the frequency of the contact and the depth. As for the frequency, there is no problem because it is solved through technology. I talk to people from the club constantly. And about the depth, the distance is not something that worries me. There are tools and people who help me achieve it.
- What aspirations do you have with Espanyol?
- My dream is, through our work and perseverance, to see it grow. I would not put any cap on this growth.
- Is it difficult to do it when your neighbor is Barça?
- If Espanyol has been growing for 122 years, it means that it has enough ingredients to continue on its way.
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