Who is Steven Zhang? Meet the 27-year-old Champions League reformer you need to know about
The European Club Association has announced that Inter Milan chairman Steven Zhang has been appointed to its executive board.
The Chinese businessman has been in charge of running Serie A giants Inter since October of last year, having been on the board of directors since 2016.
Zhang has replaced former Arsenal chief executive and current Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis on the executive board, after the former Gunners suit was forced to step down following his club's exclusion from European competition this season. Milan had qualified for the Europa League, but were booted out of the competition after breaching Financial Fair Play rules.
Businessman Zhang is the son of Zhang Jindong, founder of Suning Holdings Group, who bought the majority stake at Inter in June 2016.
Aged 27, Zhang is not only the youngest ever chairman in the Serie A club’s history, but also the first ever Chinese member of the ECA board.
The ECA are currently debating a reform of the Champions League tournament structure for the 2024/25 season, and while there is a general agreement that change to the popular club competition is needed, suggestions have been rebuffed and negotiations have so far stalled.
This week, plans to divide competition up into four groups of eight teams – part of a new, three-tier European system featuring promotion and relegation – were rejected. Under those proposals, the number of European matches for each team would have increased, and 24 of the 32 teams would have kept their places for the following season – therefore making qualification through the league redundant.
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New plans are said to be on the table, according to ESPN, as the ECA go back to the drawing board to convince clubs of their vision.
Young businessman Zhang has vowed to bring fresh and modern ideas to the ECA, having originated from a different generation of entrepreneur.
This week, he told Agence France Presse: “I’m young, but age doesn’t matter. I bring my energy and my enthusiasm, and fresh ideas to the role. I feel ready at my age for the new job.
“I can offer my freshness, my competence and even a global vision of football. The new generation is full of new ideas.”
In the past, Zhang has often followed through on his promises. He declared that he would take Inter into a new era upon his appointment as chairman last year, and the evidence so far is promising. The Serie A club are playing in their second successive season of Champions League football after six seasons away, and have attracted Serie A and Premier League winner Antonio Conte to lead them.
This summer, the Nerazzurri completed a string of high-profile signings including Diego Godin, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku, as well as the clever loan acquisitions of star youngsters Stefano Sensi and Niccolo Barella.
But with a group including Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Slavia Prague, progressing in the Champions League will be difficult. Zhang's aims for the club are ambitious, then.
The "new ideas" he may bring to European competition reform may also prove difficult to put into action: there's a widely held suspicion that senior members of the ECA wish to eventually push for a European Super League, putting the Champions League's future at risk altogether. So far, however, resistance has been strong.
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