A chinese multi-millionaire internet gaming tycoon from Shanghai has held provisional talks about buying Liverpool, The Independent can reveal. No offer has been tabled yet but Zhu Jun, 44, the founder chairman and chief executive of The9 Ltd – one of China's leading online gaming firms – is described by local sources as "sincerely interested" in the club.
When Zhu's gaming firm floated on America's Nasdaq stock exchange in 2004, Zhu pocketed around £60m and his personal fortune has expanded considerably since. Zhu has a long-term active interest in football and is the chairman and majority owner of Shanghai Shenhua of the Chinese Super League.
An informed source in Shanghai says Zhu has already had two exploratory meetings about buying Liverpool with Barclays Capital (BarCap), the global investment bank. BarCap was hired by the club's new chairman, Martin Broughton, to find a buyer after the owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, formally put the club on the market last month.
One of Zhu's meetings with BarCap took place in Hong Kong at the end of April and a second was in Shanghai in the past week, according to a business source in China. A spokesman for BarCap declined to comment.
Broughton wants a "leak-free" media strategy until a deal is done with whoever eventually buys the club. This is understandable given the attention likely to be given to any potential buyer. But the revelation of Zhu's interest and meetings is significant in that it suggests BarCap is now actively engaging with bidders.
Before Broughton and BarCap were brought on board, Liverpool's owners had struggled to attract any interest from would-be partner investors that was satisfactory to Hicks and Gillett. "There is certainly a mood change now," one insider said. "But we're not close to any done deal yet."
Zhu is one of dozens of parties contacted across the world by BarCap already, as the firm chases up previous interest in the club and explores new leads. Zhu proposes to head a consortium of businessmen, perhaps including one or more other owners of Chinese Super League clubs, to make a bid. It is known, however, that he feels the owners' nominal asking price of £800m is double a realistic valuation.
Price will be a sticking point but is acknowledged on all sides as negotiable. A swift sale is clearly in Liverpool's best interests because it would allow a new owner to take decisive action over whether to keep Rafa Benitez in charge before the summer transfer window closes.
Hicks and Gillett will not sack Benitez; The Independent has been told by a senior club insider that there is "no chance at all" of that happening because a £16m pay-off would be necessary to facilitate it and the Americans will not spend that cash. The Spaniard's position remains in the balance, as does the club's transfer policy.
The £800m price tag has been circulated in China as a starting point for negotiations among potential bidders. Sources say the price tag has deterred many potential investors from even coming to the negotiating table. However the verbal "prospectus" that BarCap has been touting highlights Liverpool's potential growth, and Zhu is among those willing to explore the possibilities of buying at a "decent" price.
BarCap is looking for a buyer committed to the new stadium, and is stressing to would-be buyers that it is integral to Liverpool's long-term stability and growth as an investment. Zhu is confident he can raise or borrow funds to build it, if the purchase price is right.
Zhu's background has been romanticised on his firm's own website, with a description of his early business life talking about how he graduated from a delivery man who used a tricycle to do his rounds in the 1980s to someone who sold clothing and then cars before moving into non-specific "international trade". The last 12 years are easier to track: he started a gaming company in 1998, moving into online virtual communities in the early Noughties as the internet boomed, and then floating The9 six years ago.