By Elvira Pollina and Giulia Segreti
MILAN (Reuters) - Italian former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi finalised his troubled sale of soccer club AC Milan to a Chinese-led consortium on Thursday, a 740 million euro ($788 million) deal that tightens China's grip on the game in Italy.
The deal, the biggest Chinese investment in a European club, follows retail giant Suning Commerce Group's purchase of local rivals Inter last year. A Chinese firm also underwrites the media rights to the top league, Serie A.
It is the end of an era for Berlusconi, who bought the club in the 1980s and swiftly turned it into the top team in Europe as well as using it as a platform along with his media empire to help launch his political career.
In a joint statement, Berlusconi's holding Fininvest said it had sold its entire stake in the club to Luxembourg-based Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux, a company controlled by investor Li Yonghong which replaced the original Chinese bid vehicle.
The 740 million euro price tag includes 220 million euros in debt. The buyers, who paid a final tranche of 370 million euros on Thursday, committed to a significant recapitalisation and financial strengthening of the club, the statement said.
"Its supporters have long hoped for AC Milan to be restored to former glory," Li told Chinese website Sina Weibo
"Today we completed a key step in that path to rejuvenation, and into the future we will continue to push steadily ahead and bring this legendary team back to the summit of the world."
BERLUSCONI BOWS OUT
Berlusconi, 80, is selling because he was unwilling to stump up the extra money required for the team to compete with the continent's top clubs, many now bankrolled by wealthy Gulf and Asian owners.
"After more than 30 years I am ceding ownership of Milan and stepping down as president. I am saddened and moved, but aware that modern soccer requires investments and resources that a single family cannot sustain on its own," Berlusconi said.
He had agreed the deal to sell AC Milan last August, but the transaction ran into trouble and took longer than expected to complete as Beijing cracked down on non-strategic foreign acquisitions, especially vanity deals in the sports industry.
U.S. private equity fund Elliott came to the deal's rescue at the 11th hour last month, agreeing to lend money to Rossoneri Sport Investment.
The vehicle received 180 million euros from Elliott and another 140 million euros from China's Huarong, said a source familiar with the transactions.
A further 50 million were paid by Li, the source added.
The consortium's full membership has not been made public.
AC Milan is second only to Real Madrid in the list of winners of Europe's top club competition, but it has failed to win any major silverware since 2011 and is lying sixth in Italy's Serie A top division.
The club, which reported a loss of 93.5 million euros in 2015, needs to fund the purchase of match-winning players as well as invest in its brand at home and abroad.
It has not yet disclosed its 2016 accounts, but a source familiar with its finances said it lost 70 to 80 million euros.
AC Milan's new owners offered Berlusconi the chance to stay involved in his cherished club as honorary president but he declined.
Elliott's financing deal totals 300 million euros, including a cash injection into AC Milan itself, and carries an average interest rate of just under 10 percent. ($1 = 0.9397 euros)
(additional reporting by Maria Pia Quaglia; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Keith Weir)