Football: “Auxerre is a small town that can compete with the big clubs”, says James Zhou, owner of AJA

In the learning phase. In an interview with AFP, the 61-year-old Chinese billionaire James Zhou, majority shareholder of AJ Auxerre, believes that the club must pass “of a logic of Ligue 2” to the requirements of L1, and still has “need some time”.

AJ Auxerre is back in Ligue 1 after ten years of absence. What is your feeling ?

Sunday, in Lille, I was very moved to attend a Ligue 1 match for the first time as manager of the club. The result was difficult (4-1 defeat) but it reflects the difficulty of moving from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1. And we are still in a Ligue 2 logic. We are aware that we must evolve to maintain ourselves. We need time. Auxerre is a football city with very strong supporters. Our ambition was to reach Ligue 1 between three and five years and we are embarking on a new cycle. It will take a similar period to consider returning to Europe.

Why did you choose Auxerre in 2016?

I was interested in Bordeaux but, for football, Auxerre is much more famous in China thanks to Guy Roux. I also knew the reputation of the training center. Auxerre is a small town that can compete with the big clubs and that is good publicity for our club in China. The first time I came, I was immediately impressed by the passion around this club. There is a real football culture here.

I hope to find my replacement as soon as possible.”

What was your investment policy in Auxerre?

Of course, you have to work around the team but when I arrived, I did not imagine such a difficult situation in terms of infrastructure. The fields and the weight room really needed to be renovated or modernized, just like the stadium in terms of public comfort. We spent a lot of energy and money. Some advised me to abandon the training center to save money. But in this case, my coming would no longer have had any meaning. I insist, the priority remains training. I would have hoped to get into Ligue 1 faster, but the most important thing is to know how to manage the investment well. I don’t want to reveal how much I invested exactly, but from the first year, it was over thirty million euros, and I continued thereafter. We continue to strengthen the foundations of the club.

You do not want to remain executive chairman?

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I’m probably not the best president for AJA. I have many other occupations and other functions. I am not a specialist in French football. I have clearly defined the ideal profile of the future president of AJA: a Frenchman who knows French football well. I hope to find my replacement as soon as possible.

AJA’s budget is 32 million euros, one of the most modest in the championship, why?

My company, ORG, has always complied with the Chinese government’s measures regarding currency outflow controls which remain in effect whether in football or other activities. The investment on the AJA will not be limited. The budget is only 32 million euros but we are only discovering L1. And there is the control of the budget by the DNCG whose method is very good for French football. The club should not depend too much on the shareholder but rather rely on the commercial market. In this, the Chinese market will greatly help the club to develop.

“An association of AJA supporters will be created in China”

What is the audience of AJ Auxerre in China?

We have two football academies. In the future, young Chinese will come to Auxerre to study and train. Chinese football is not very developed. My goal is for AJA to contribute to its progress and export French football to China. Our matches will be broadcast live on CCTV, the biggest Chinese media, which chooses one or two matches per day from L1, and Miguvideos, an internet platform. At the beginning of September, we will announce that an association of AJA supporters in China will be born.

There are very few Chinese investors in French football, why do you think?

The main reason is that the two parties do not know each other well, especially in terms of business development in China. This is just the beginning for French football. We need to work a lot to introduce Chinese fans to French football, which corresponds well to the expectations of this public.

Can your company, ORG Technology, encourage other investors to come and support AJA?

ORG provides a lot of services to its customers and as a sports product. AJA has been introduced to many of them, it’s true, and we are trying to create a fabric of relationships with Chinese partners.

Interview by François-Jean Tixier of AFP.

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