Kicking Balls – From Doha To Paris, With Love

Neymar PSG

Brazilian footballer Neymar’s £200m release clause – allowing his transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) – places him at 206th in the United Nations’ list of nations by GDP, ahead of the Marshall Islands and Palau…

Football transfers are fast becoming like fake breasts – over-inflated and ridiculous. I mean, how can so much money be spent on someone to kick a leather ball around a playing field that could be used to grow crops to feed the migrants camped at Calais, who now do not even have water? The French tax authorities, of course, are particularly pleased and have already prepared tax invoices for Monsieur Neymar – unless he does a Google, which he probably will.

Am I missing out on ethics here?

I feel really sorry for the fans of these clubs who spend a huge amount of their hard-earned money (or should that be benefits?) to watch these overpayed boys kick a ball around for 90 minutes on a Saturday night.

I’ve been a football enthusiast all my life. In the 70’s, I followed the rise and fall of Manchester City with passion and despair. My brother (a Leeds supporter) and I, even travelled from London to Manchester to watch City vs Leeds, on a cold winter’s Saturday, courtesy of a handful of Corn Flakes vouchers for an Inter-City 2nd class cheap-day return, buns and British Rail cocoa included. We returned home late at night, hungry and freezing.

I remember vividly the day it all started – the transfer madness. It was the day that a gifted English footballer, Trevor Francis, became the first professional to cost a million pounds – and he did it twice. I was chuffed because Manchester City were the ones who purchased him the second time. He was a joy to watch, scored two goals on his debut, spent much of the season injured, and left for Italy the following year. Even today, Trevor Francis’ two transfers would have amounted to approximately £7m – a far cry from Neymar’s ludicrous price-tag.

PSG is owned by Qatari Sports Investment (QSI), belonging to Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. Qatar, who not only own PSG but also a big chunk of Paris, are in the midst of a deep dispute with their Arab neighbours, over alleged terrorism funding. They are probably keen to show that, despite a trade blockade and foul language, they are still capable of splashing the cash and making a name for themselves. The fact that the accusations emanate from Saudi-Arabia is, it itself, rather cynical. It takes one to know one, I suppose, and Saudi-Arabia has probably more than dubious ties with terrorist organisations, including ISIS, as underscored by the publication of leaked emails originating from the US state department. If Saudi-Arabia and others are right in suspecting Qatar of supporting terrorism, there is some good news in this whole affair: the money Qatar spends on Neymar cannot be spent on ISIS.

But have PSG really got the money to buy Neymar and afford his wages? In 2014, Michel Platini – the deposed head of the European Football Union, UEFA – installed a financial fair play system (FFP) in which the European governing body would closely scrutinise the accounts of its members. That was, of course, before he himself was accused of running off with a suitcase full of money. Be that as it may, the FFP guidelines are simple: in the long-term, clubs must make a profit and not spend more than they earn on wages and transfers. It goes without saying that the original FFP rules have been modified to suit the bigger clubs who pretended to defend the aspiring little ones, by pleading that clubs should be allowed to “invest” for the future, in hoping to lift a trophy.

To pay for Neymar’s transfer, without breaking FFP rules, lucrative sponsorship deals, like the one involving the Qatar Tourism Authority (deal valued at €175m), must be found to fend off FFP investigation – if they decide to investigate, that is. The mere fact that PSG is owned by an investment company, should raise eyebrows in the context of FFP. In 2015, the FFP specified that clubs will be investigated if the owner – through a commercial sponsor he is related to – injects more than 30% of the club’s revenue into a team. Ironically, in the past, PSG and Manchester City (who, this year, have also spent in excess of £200m on new players), had their fingers ticked for not complying with FFP rules. It seems that, this time around, FFP will not be able to do much about the colossal amount of money spent by the French club. Not only will the Qatari owners find a way around FFP rules, but it does seem that Qatar has a lot of influence in European football at the moment, as underscored by the country securing the right to organize the 2022 football World Cup, with the full support of UEFA.

I feel a bit sorry for Neymar. A player with exceptional talent, he has had the misfortune to play along side a player with even more exceptional talent – Lionel Messi. It must have been have been an existential nightmare for the young lad. But for now at least, his plight is even worse. He has become an exceptionally talented puppet in Qatar’s exceptionally well-calculated international relations strategy.

There is, however, another side to the story that is less well known, and goes beyond the inconsistencies of local politics and insurmountable egos of tattoed football players. It relates to the very safeguard of Qatar’s economy. Up to now, Qatar has derived its riches from gas and oil reserves and, at the present rate of production, it is estimated that gas and oil reserves will last another 140-150 years or so. By investing in extremely high-profile players, such as Neymar, and competitions such as a World Cup, Qatar is targeting a global takeover of something much more lasting and highly lucrative, in a search to eventually replace its oil and gas revenues – television rights. Of course, what sort of energy will fuel our television sets in 150 years time is anybody’s guess, but the fact remains that the Qatari’s are planning a takeover of world sporting television networks.

A new sports channel, beIN sports was launched in 2012 as an offshoot of the already well-established Al Jazeera Media Network. The channel managed to implant itself in France, providing live coverage of several top-flight football matches. It holds the rights not only to transmit matches from the domestic competition, but also from the major European leagues including Spain, Italy and Germany, as well as the highly lucrative Champions League tournament. More recently, beIN sports has successfully implanted itself in the United States, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand, transmitting matches from the main European football leagues.

BeIN sports is not limiting itself to football. Other sports such as rugby, basketball, motor sports and tennis are also being transmitted, albeit in a limited number of countries. However, early last year, beIN sports made an entrance into a potentially huge market – American Football.

It is clear that the Qatari’s want to become major players in the world of live transmissions of sporting events as well as entertainment, by “infiltrating” already existing networks such as Sky in the UK. In 2016, belIN also acquired Miramax Film Corporation, and the largest Turkish pay-TV platform (Digiturk), thus adding substantially to its movie channel and pay-TV.

The ability of beIN to make inroads into already existing markets is not only limited to sport events. In 2014, beIN launched a subsidiary company, beIN Connect, an “over-the-top content” service that provides its subscribers access to live and on-demand video content on a wide range of devices such as home computers, mobile phones, and PlayStations, via an internet connection. On demand programmes include sports highlights, movies, and TV shows. BeIN Connect is currently available as a paid service in France, Spain, the United States, Canada, the Middle-East and North Africa.

The chairman and CEO of beIN, Nasser Al-Khelaifia, a former ATP tennis player, prides himself in having transformed Al Jazeera sports into a fast growing global multi-media company. In three years, the company has managed to implant 60 channels in 43 countries across the globe, broadcasting over 7000 hours of live events on a monthly basis. At this rate, what will the group have achieved when Qatari’s oil and gas reserves do finally dry up, and how many Champions League trophies will PSG have won?