Qataris' Latest Bauble: Paris Saint-Germain

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 8/04/2011 12:21:00 AM
I almost forgot to post about this one. Football (soccer) arguably being the most globalized of sports, Formula One notwithstanding, here's another development that boggles the mind. Not long after leading the effort to secure the 2022 World Cup for Qatar--a choice that makes next to no sense outside of FIFA power plays--Mohammad Bin Hammam was famously ousted from the organization over allegation corruptions that remain rather unresolved. However, his unceremonious departure has apparently not sated the Qataris' appetite for the beautiful game.

To be sure, the Qataris are looking ahead and are thinking of their non-energy-related future alike the Emiratis. Witness the creation of the highly watchable al-Jazeera, a cable network that regularly ruffles the feathers of other authoritarians in the region. Or, consider their purchase of the world's most fabled department store, Harrods. Copying the Emirates (Dubai) and Etihad (Abu Dhabi) playbook, Qatar Airways is also rapidly expanding rapidly by ordering dozens of jets from Airbus and Boeing during the recent Paris Air Show.

But that's not to say that all of its investments have an eye towards future financial returns. Nor is it shying away from the controversy surrounding its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup and Bin Hammam's ignominious departure. For, the Qatar Investment Authority has now purchased one of the most storied of French football teams, Paris Saint-Germain. Having won the UEFA Cup in 1996, it has since encountered less productive seasons. Perhaps again aping the Emiratis' free-spending habits to turn Manchester City into a Champions League contender to be reckoned with, don't be surprised to see megabucks being spent at the Paris club in the near future. From the Evening Standard:
Europe is poised to have a new super club after the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain by Qatar Sports Investments, an arm of the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, the Gulf theocracy that, ludicrously, won the race to host the 2022 World Cup and is the planet's largest producer of liquefied natural gas.

In the long run-up to their World Cup, the Qatari royal family, or their representatives, are now set to be active in the European transfer market as PSG, who finished fourth in Ligue 1 last season and failed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, set out on a quest to join the power elite of the European club game.

PSG are set to pull off one of the transfer coups of the summer by bringing the Argentina midfielder Javier Pastore from Palermo to Paris. He had been expected to sign for Chelsea but it seems that not even Roman Abramovich can now compete with the limitless funds of a gas-and oil-rich Gulf state.

Like the oil sheikhs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the Qatari royals understand how sport has become one of the supreme instruments of soft power. They know if you build the stadia and five (or is it seven?) star hotels, and spend whatever is necessary, the world will come to the deserts of the Persian Gulf, even if it means playing football in summer temperatures approaching 50 degrees. (But, hey, the stadia will be air-conditioned!)

It has been an open secret that the Qataris have been looking to buy one of the worlds's top football clubs, preferably one in the English Premier League. They were thought to be interested in Tottenham [Hotspur] and Liverpool. In the event, they have moved across the Channel to capture a 70 per cent controlling stake in PSG, a club located in one of the great metropolises but playing in what is probably the fifth-ranked league in Europe - only one French side have won the European Cup/Champions League, Marseilles in 1993, then owned by the now-disgraced Bernard Tapie, who was convicted of match-fixing.
Can it actually be a [gasp!] good investment? Given the parent company's media interests, perhaps it will at least be less of a loss leader than I make it out to be. World football is really weird...
Yet the capture of PSG could turn out to be a very smart investment, especially as the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera already owns the international rights for Ligue 1 matches and, since June, together with Canal Plus, has also bought a share of the domestic rights. The opportunities for cross-media subsidy and for promotion seem boundless.

PSG have been in relative decline since the mid-to-late nineties when Lyon emerged, for a long period, as the dominant club in France. But all that is set to change. Like Manchester City, in effect owned by Abu Dhabi, PSG have a large and loyal fanbase, including many Francophone Arabs living in Paris. Like City, they should very quickly be able to buy themselves a place at the Champions League top table, from where, depending on how much the Qataris spend, anything should be possible.

For too long French clubs have underachieved in Europe, when you consider the successes of the national team and how many first-rate French and African players emerge from Ligue 1. This is partly because their best and brightest stars are invariably sold to England, Spain and Italy. Last season, unfancied Lille became champions for the first time since 1954 but have since spent the summer fending off bids for their players, not always successfully - Arsenal, for instance, signed the Ivorian striker, Gervinho.

The takeover of leading European clubs by nation, or pseudo-nation, states is the next phase in the globalisation of football that must surely before too long result in the creation of a European super league - or, at the very least, in a new multinational breakaway competition to rival the Champions League.
Leaving aside the rumours about the formation of a breakaway (read non-FIFA, UEFA) league of European elite clubs, that French clubs are not Champions League-competitive despite the country having a welter of stars especially since their 1998 World Cup victory is well-spotted. The again, you could say the same about the Dutch who have similarly had little European club success due to their star players heading for more remunerative European locales.

The BBC also adds that the new owners are banking on the club's unique status as the only major football team in one of Europe's capitals. Moreover, they've already spent a tidy sum in anticipation of the upcoming season:
This week, in the run-up to the Ligue 1 kick-off at the weekend, PSG were close to smashing the French transfer record by signing Palermo's Javier Pastore for 43m euros (£37.4m). Even leaving the 22-year-old Argentine playmaker aside, though, the Parisian club have invested more than £37m on new players this summer - three times as much as champions Lille...

The mystery is why it has taken so long for PSG, who last won the title in 1994, to attract serious money. Key to PSG's appeal is the fact that Paris is unique for a city of its size in having only one professional football club.

"If you look at popular collective sports around the world there is not one club... that fits into the middle of an area with roughly 10-12 million inhabitants and has absolute exclusivity on [its] market," Comolli told BBC Sport. The attractiveness of Paris as a capital city will also help to lure new stars, with Comolli arguing [Javier] Pastore's signing is a taster of PSG's future player recruitment strategy...
Can a reconstituted and obviously loaded Paris Saint-Germain remedy this situation? If football is indeed a form of "soft power" deployment, the Qataris should certainly hope so to improve their prestige.

UPDATE: Not wasting much time, the rumour is that the English Premier League's top scorer from last year, Manchester United's Dimitar Berbatov, is on the Qatari's shopping list.