China Railway Construction Corp is in talks with Inter Milan to build a new stadium in Italy's financial capital in a move that would allow the Italian club to have its own home and make money out of it.
But the two sides gave conflicting versions on Thursday as to whether an agreement had been signed and whether it included China Railway buying a stake in Inter, which would be the first such investment from mainland China in a major foreign sports team.
Two sources close to the situation told Reuters that China Railway was the main partner in a deal to buy a 15 percent stake in Inter Milan for 55 million euros. One source said the stake was in exchange for building the stadium.
Inter said in a statement on its website late on Wednesday a group of Chinese investors had agreed to buy a minority stake in the club, becoming the second biggest shareholder.
The club did not name the investors and did not disclose the size of the stake, but said China Railway would help build a new stadium by 2017.
"The main aim is to build a new stadium, that's what the agreement with China Railway is really about," Massimo Moratti, chairman and owner of the 104-year-old club, said.
In a statement, China Railway said it was not included in the group of investors cited by Inter and had not held talks with the Milan club about buying a stake.
It said one of its subsidiaries "is presently in consultations with Inter Milan and relevant parties" on the construction of a stadium at the San Donato site in Milan and would make an announcement once a contract is signed.
Inter said a joint statement by the two companies was expected shortly.
One of the sources familiar with the situation said the deal envisaged more Asian investors eventually taking stakes in Inter Milan, even though the Moratti family will retain majority control.
Inter Milan and arch-rivals AC Milan, owned by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, use the 80,065-seat San Siro Stadium, which was completed in 1926 and is owned by the city of Milan.
City ownership of stadiums is common in Italy but leaves clubs unable to modernise their grounds and make money out of facilities at them such as mega-stores and restaurants in the way Manchester United and Bayern Munich do.
"Now we must find the right location, see what can be done and in a few years' time the fans will have their own home," Moratti said.
Italy's ageing stadiums have the second-lowest attendance among the "big five" European top football leagues, with the English Premier League and Germany's Bundesliga leading the pack.
Gate receipts accounted for just 13 percent of Serie A's total 1.55 billion euro revenues in the 2010/11 season, according to consultancy Deloitte.
Inter have long dreamed of building a new stadium, following the example of Italian rival Juventus whose new 41,000-seater stadium in Turin, which cost 120 million euros, brought fans back to matches.
A spokeswoman for Milan city council said there was no decision yet on where the new Inter Milan stadium could be built.
Chinese investors, encouraged by the government, have been actively pursuing overseas assets in recent years.
Some high-profile purchases have included the takeover of cereal maker Weetabix by China Bright Food and an agreement by Dalian Wanda Group to buy the U.S. movie chain AMC Theatres, both in May.
China Railway Construction has actively pursued overseas investment this year, signing two projects in Africa with a total contract value of 9.1 billion yuan ($1.4 billion).
Investors from the Chinese mainland have been looking to buy stakes in foreign sports teams, but with little success so far. Possible targets have included The Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team and Britain's Liverpool football club.
In 2009, Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung bought Birmingham City.comments