Political football: how warring Gulf states are playing out their rivalries on the pitch

New PSG recruit Neymar Jr is presented to the club’s supporters ahead of the team’s home league game against Amiens SC, 5th August 2017. Photo: Christian Liewig / ABACAPRESS.COM

The announcement took place in what looked and sounded like the opening night of a provincial nightclub. The darkened room, packed full of journalists, was filled with flashing blue lights and deafening techno which then segued into Brazilian beats to announce that the main act had arrived. The big video screens behind the desk at the front of the room flashed into life. “Welcome to Paris, Neymar Jr,” read the message.

From the back of the room, Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior – arguably the most talented Brazilian player of his generation – entered dressed in a suit. Alongside him was the man behind the greatest transfer coup of the modern game: Nasser al Khelaifi, the Qatari chairman of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). Camera shutters clicked as the two sat behind the desk. “Neymar is an idol…” began al Khelaifi. “For me, personally, Neymar is the best player in the world.” Which was just as well. Al Khelaifi had more than doubled the existing world-record transfer fee to secure Neymar’s services, spending around £200 million to sign the player from Barcelona.

Barcelona’s prestige and mystique had long beguiled prospective players, making it easy for the club to attract and retain the world’s best. Alongside Barça players Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, Neymar made up the so called MSN: the most potent attack in world football. But Barcelona, it turned out, was no match for the spending power of a gas-rich state. PSG is owned by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), a sovereign investment vehicle of the state of Qatar.

The transfer of Neymar has made headlines everywhere around the world. We will talk about it for a long time” 
— Nasser al Khelaifi

The money to pay for Neymar is, effectively, the state of Qatar’s money. Al Khelaifi – a former Qatari tennis player who once held an ATP rank and plays the occasional game with the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani – also chairs QSI. When it comes to PSG getting what it wants, money is no object. “[The transfer of Neymar] has made headlines everywhere around the world,” said al Khelaifi, talking first in fluent French and then in more cumbersome English. “We will talk about it for a long time.”

 

Moneyball

For the past two years I have travelled around the world looking at how and why the super-rich have invested in football. That journey took me to the slums of Dhaka in Bangladesh, labour camps in the UAE, football stadiums in China and to Qatar on many occasions. Often, the source of the new money in football was nebulous, as were the reasons for investing in the game in the first place. Why had the likes of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and one of the richest men in the world, invested their vast fortunes in the game? Qatar’s motives had at least been easier to decipher: it likes the publicity. Neymar’s transfer was a genuine international news event. Almost every TV bulletin, newspaper and website around the world led with news of the 25-year-old striker’s record move.

Neymar poses with PSG president Nasser al Khelaifi following a press conference at the Parc des Princes ground. Photo: Jonathan Brady /PA Wire / PA Images

Neymar’s signing had also provided PSG’s ultimate owners with something that they had always sought but had never quite achieved: a place at the game’s top table. The signing of one of the world’s best – and most marketable – players in the prime of his career was a coup for the club. It’s also part of a pattern of behaviour that stretches back to the start of 
the millennium.

In 2000, Qatar was virtually unknown to most football fans across the world. But then, under Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the country started to go all out to invest its extraordinary, newly harnessed natural gas wealth into sport. Both Qatar and the UAE emirate of Dubai made sport an integral plank of their foreign policy in the belief that hosting and investing in high-profile events provided two invaluable things: the opportunity to rebrand and advertise themselves on the international stage, and the status of an equal partner among the elite nations of the world.

The succession of high-profile investments started with the launch of Doha’s Aspire sports academy in 2004 and the signing of big-name players such as Pep Guardiola and Marcel Desailly to play in the local Qatar Stars League. Then there was the hosting of a string of tournaments in a range of sports from golf to MotoGP, and from tennis to snooker. And then came huge sponsorship deals between state-funded entities – such as Qatar Airways – and Barcelona FC.

But the biggest coup was Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Just how the vote in December 2010 was won is still mired in 
controversy. What exactly was agreed at the now-
infamous meeting at the Elysée Palace in Paris in November 2010 between Qatari Crown Prince Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, the president of European football’s governing body Michel Platini, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Nasser Al Khelaifi is still much debated. Platini later confirmed that he changed his critical vote from the US to Qatar following the Elysée Palace meeting, but denied rumours that he was pressurised into doing so by Sarkozy, who at the time was pursuing trade deals with Doha.

After the 2022 vote was won, PSG – the team Sarkozy supports – was bought by QSI. The TV rights for French football were bought by beIN Sports, which was spun off from Al Jazeera and re-branded. beIN then went on a spending spree for football rights around the world, including the rights for the Premier League and Champions League in the Middle East, not to mention the rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals.

Al Khelaifi was the chairman and driving force of both beIN and QSI. Meanwhile, Sheikh Tamim – who founded QSI and takes a close interest in football – replaced his father as emir in 2013. A French anti-corruption investigation is currently looking into Sarkozy’s relationship with Qatar and a network of deals involving the country that were agreed around the same time. There are ongoing investigations in Switzerland and the US into alleged corruption in and around Fifa as well. The Qatari authorities have always strenuously denied 
any wrongdoing.

 

The counter-attack

On Friday 29th September 2017 it was oppressively hot and humid outside just before local giants Al Sadd played Al Gharafa in the new season of the Qatari Stars League. But walking into the Jassim bin Hamad stadium in Doha, I was hit with a wall of cool air from the stadium’s air-con system which keeps the stands and the pitch at a tolerable temperature.

Al Sadd fans at the Jassim bin Hamad stadium in Doha. The 40,000-capacity stadium had a recent £70 million renovation including the installation of air-conditioning to keep the pitch and stands below 26°C despite summer temperatures topping 50°C. Photo: Al Sadd Club

Spain’s most decorated international is playing for Al Sadd. Xavi Hernandez was the metronome at the heart of Barcelona and Spain’s recent dominance. This is a man who has won the World Cup, two European Championships, four Champions League finals and eight La Liga titles. But when Qatar made an offer he couldn’t refuse, he moved to Doha.

“I’m 38 in January and I feel a bit tired,” says Xavi when we meet after the game near the Khalifa Stadium, which recently became the first 2022 World Cup venue to be finished, five years ahead of schedule. “I am fine to play football,” he adds quickly. “But it is difficult now for me to recover between games.” In many ways, Qatar’s investment in Xavi was a prototype for the Neymar deal: a legendary Barcelona player who could lend prestige not just to the club he would play for, but to the whole Qatari project.

Xavi is also an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup finals, and a coach at the Aspire Academy, which has grown into a vast talent-spotting operation moulding the Qatari internationals of the future. “Everybody asks me, on the streets, ‘Xavi, will you be [Qatar’s] coach in 2022?’” he says. “It’s a big honour!” A World Cup winner turned manager leading out a Qatari team in 2022 wouldn’t be a surprise.

Yet there is trouble ahead for Qatar. Since 5th 
June 2017, the country has been blockaded by its neighbours, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Notionally, the justification for the ostracisation is Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism: it backed Mohamed Morsi’s brief Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt before it was deposed and Gulf autocracies such as the UAE see the Brotherhood’s brand of political Islam as a threat to their power. But the real reason may well lie in petty jealousies over Qatar’s success – especially the fact that it will be the first country in the region to host a World Cup – and in anger over its freewheeling Al Jazeera TV news channel, which has aired critical stories about its neighbours.

Since Neymar signed, the view that football is being used as a battleground between competing Gulf autocracies has gained greater credence”

Even under blockade, Qatar – which has a $340 billion surplus thanks to years of high gas prices – has not been brought to its knees despite, according to Moody’s credit agency, burning through £30.3 billion of its reserves in the two months after the embargo began. Instead of conserving its funds, it bankrolled the signing of the world’s most expensive player. Given the potential stakes involved, and the message of defiance sent by the new recruit, the move is seen by Qatar as a sensible investment.

Since Neymar was signed, the view that football is now being used as a battleground between competing Gulf autocracies has gained greater credence. In July 2017, during the transfer window, PSG battled with Manchester City, which is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, a member of the UAE’s leading royal family, to sign several players. Juventus wing-back Dani Alves had agreed to join City but PSG swooped in and snatched him away at the last moment. One insider suggested that Qatar had offered double his prospective wages at Man City.

Six weeks later PSG beat City to Monaco’s highly rated French striker Kylian Mbappé. The rivalry is also being played out on the front of the players’ shirts. In 2010, Barcelona signed a deal with the Qatar Foundation (replaced by a deal with Qatar Airways in 2013), ending a 111-year tradition of not having shirt sponsorship. Following criticism from fans, that deal ended at the start of this season. Meanwhile, PSG’s shirt deal hasn’t yet changed to meet the new political reality – Neymar celebrates every goal for his new team with the logo for Emirates Airlines plastered over his shirt.

 

Blocking the goal

The rivalries being played out go far beyond shirts. The 2022 World Cup finals were not mentioned on the list of 13 sweeping demands issued by the UAE, Saudi and Egyptian coalition when they imposed their embargo on Qatar. But one of Dubai’s highest-ranked security figures, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan, claimed that the World Cup was central to ending the blockade.

“If the World Cup goes out of Qatar,” he wrote on Twitter, “the crisis in Qatar will end because the crisis was made to break it.” A few days later, similar sentiments were expressed by the UAE’s minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash. “Qatar’s hosting of World Cup 2022 should include a repudiation of policies supporting extremism and terrorism. Doha should review its record,” he wrote. Qatar’s reply was swift: “Their weak attempts to tie the hosting of the 2022 Fifa World Cup to their illegal blockade show their desperation to justify their inhumane action,” said a statement by the Qatari government communications office.

The Khalifa International Stadium under construction in Doha in January 2016. The stadium will be one of the host venues for the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Photo: Andreas Gebert / DPA

A lower-level conflict of influence has also been simmering over the past year. Thinktanks funded by the UAE and Qatar have put on conferences and produced reports in Washington DC and London with the apparent goal of painting one another as the true enemy of moderation. A few months after the Neymar transfer, a story appeared on the BBC News website about a “confidential” new report that concluded that there is “an increasing political risk that Qatar may not host the World Cup in 2022”. The report was written by Cornerstone Global, an international consultancy owned by Ghanem Nuseibeh. In a glowing profile in the UAE government-owned The National newspaper, he has been compared to John F Kennedy.

Nuseibeh’s Twitter account, it soon emerged, contained frequent anti-Qatar, pro-Saudi comments. In one tweet he claimed that the Qatari royal family was worse than Isis. “Qatar is no longer a state,” he wrote. “It is not even a rogue state, it is a terrorist organisation ruled by money-laundering Islamist terrorists.” Nuseibeh has since claimed that the Cornerstone report was entirely objective, but it remains unclear who commissioned it.

Neymar provided an important PR coup for Qatar and has made a start on earning back his fee. He has hit the ground running, scoring eight goals in his first eight games. Nasser al Khelaifi, however, has fared less well. The Swiss attorney general’s office announced on 12th October that it is investigating him over allegations that bribes were paid to former Fifa secretary general Jérôme Valcke to secure World Cup TV rights for beIN sport. Both al Khelaifi and his company strenuously deny any involvement. “beIN refutes all accusations made by OAG [the Swiss attorney general’s office]. The company will fully co-operate with the authorities and is confident as to the future developments of the investigation,” beIN said in a statement.

News of the investigation was, of course, gleefully tweeted by those opposed to Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, and those who support the blockade. There seems to be a bigger game at play. A hatful of goals from the most expensive player in world might not be enough to counter it.


James Montague is the author of 
The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable 
Rise of Football’s Super-Rich Owners, published 
by Bloomsbury 
at £16.99.

 

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