The self-made Chinese millionaire who bought an 80 percent stake in Southampton was once a farmer, spent his formative years in the armed police and fancies himself as a poet.
Gao Jisheng became just the latest Chinese tycoon to plough money into English football when he stumped up a reported £200 million ($256 million) for “a partnership” at the Premier League club last week.
He adds to a growing cast of colourful overseas owners pumping money into English clubs.
Gao keeps a low profile and his move on Southampton did not make major news in China.
He does however maintain his own website, in which he describes a varied career including work as a farmer, journalist and factory manager, though he provides few details.
Gao entered real estate in the 1990s and the country’s huge property boom propelled him into the ranks of the wealthy Chinese elite.
His website includes several examples of his poetry and essays, the latest being “Grandma’s Spinning Wheel”, a recollection of his grandmother written on a flight from Shanghai to London in April.
But he would also appear to have a more steely side.
From 1970 to 1977 — encompassing the tumult of the Cultural Revolution — Gao was in the Shanghai People’s Armed Police as a squad leader and technician, according to a company profile that lists his birth year as 1952.
The acquisition of Southampton has been months — or perhaps years, his writings suggest — in the making.
Gao’s Lander Sports Development, which among other things builds stadiums in China, said in January it had agreed a deal with Southampton, but in April announced it was off.
The eventual agreement was described as a personal investment also involving Gao’s daughter Nelly.
– ‘Drunk on Poole’ –
The Financial Times cited an unnamed senior football executive as saying other Premier League clubs had expressed concerns about Gao and what the newspaper called “his past involvement in corruption investigations in China”.
Gao is not known to have been convicted of any crimes. He did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
In the Southampton statement announcing his arrival, Gao said in brief remarks that he was “honoured and humbled to become a partner of Southampton Football Club”.
A clue as to one possible reason why he plumped for the unfashionable club on England’s south coast comes in his florid writing.
As far back as 2011 Gao appears to have been enchanted by the region.
“Southampton is not a big-size city but it is world renowned,” he writes in a diary entry dated October of that year and posted on his website, describing how the doomed Titanic departed from the coastal city on its fateful voyage in 1912.
He also enthuses about Poole, with its picturesque natural harbour just an hour’s drive from Southampton.
The Dorset coastal town also boasts the millionaire’s playground and pristine beaches of the Sandbanks Peninsula, one of the most expensive areas to buy property in the world.
“Poole is like a dark brown Chinese Pu’er tea, between red mountains and blue ocean. I can’t help taking a sip,” Gao gushes.
“Its thick and bitter taste turned out to be sweet and fresh, I was drunk.” – Agence France-Presse