Photo: Miguel A. Lopes, AP
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) — An Élysée Palace lunch a decade ago deepened the sports business bonds between Qatar and France ahead of the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain. Now the $1 billion-plus invested in the club could finally lead to European football’s biggest prize being collected on Sunday.
The grand and costly ambitions of a sporting project entangled in political objectives will reach new heights when PSG plays Bayern Munich in its first Champions League final.
“Tomorrow is an opportunity for us to join the elite circle by winning the Champions League,” PSG forward Kylian Mbappé said on Saturday.
Mbappé is one of the symbols of the lavish PSG transformation — from an underperforming club to one of the most glamorous in world football — since the Qatari buyout in 2011. The France forward ultimately cost €145 million to add to the squad two years ago, a fee only eclipsed by the world record €222 million spent on Neymar a year earlier.
“We know what a big club we are,” Mbappé said, “and we know how much the club has grown over the years.”
Sunday’s rival — five-time European Cup winner Bayern — also enjoys financing from Doha through Qatar Airways sponsorship, an association with the Gulf nation that has sparked criticism from human rights groups.
“A game for the ages that we call the #Qlassico,” Qatar Airways tweeted ahead of the game in Lisbon.
But it is PSG — controlled by the Qatari state after the 2011 takeover through a sports investment vehicle — that has become a diplomatic mechanism to exert further soft power through football by the 2022 World Cup host nation.
That tournament will be staged in the Middle East for the first time after being secured in December 2010. The contentious FIFA vote took place weeks after then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a PSG fan, hosted the Élysée Palace meeting with the future Emir of Qatar as well as France footballing great Michel Platini, who was president of European governing body UEFA.
As a FIFA vice president, Platini had a say in the destination of the World Cup.
“Sarkozy never asked me to vote for Qatar,” Platini told The Associated Press in 2010, “but I knew what would be good.”
Within seven months, a struggling PSG, which hadn’t won the French title since 1994, had been bought by a company linked to Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who became the emir.
Nasser al-Khelaifi, as chairman of Qatar Sports Investments, became president of the club. He was also running the Qatar-owned sports network that became beIN the following year. It bought broadcasting rights for Ligue 1 that PSG has won in seven out of the last eight seasons and launched French channels.
When it came to replacing Dubai-based airline Emirates as PSG sponsor, Accor Hotels bought the rights to appear on the jerseys in a 2019 deal. Accor’s third biggest shareholder with 11.3% is the Qatar Investment Authority.
PSG declined to make a club official available for interview to discuss the club’s rise ahead of the game.
Any joy at winning the Champions League final could be short-lived for Al-Khelaifi, a former tennis professional and close friend of the ruling emir who also sits on UEFA’s ruling executive committee.
Al-Khelaifi will go on trial in Switzerland on Sept. 14 over how a senior FIFA official gained the use a luxury villa on the Italian island of Sardinia without paying rent valued at up to 1.8 million euros ($1.94 million) in 2014 and 2015.
At the time, Jerome Valcke was FIFA secretary general with influence over FIFA broadcast deals, including an extension of beIN’s Middle East rights for the 2026 and 2030 World Cups.
Al-Khelaifi, who denies any wrongdoing, was charged in February with inciting Valcke to commit aggravated criminal mismanagement.
Middle East rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were bought by beIN soon after winning the FIFA hosting vote.
The court case, which is listed to last eight days in September, will also see Valcke and another broadcasting executive stand trial.
But it is not the end of Al-Khelaifi’s legal difficulties, who has hit out at a “relentless agenda to smear my reputation in the media.”
He has also been implicated in a corruption investigation by French prosecutors that is linked to Qatar seeking hosting rights for the track and field world championships, and has denied any wrongdoing. Doha hosted the 2019 edition.
French authorities are also investigating how the gas-rich nation won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, with a trail that leads to that November 2010 gathering at the official residence of the French president. Platini was questioned after being arrested in June 2019 by police — as were two former Sarkozy aides — over the awarding of FIFA tournaments.
No charges have been filed against Platini, but the investigation remains open by the French financial crimes prosecutors scrutinizing the process by which Qatar was handed hosting rights.
That won’t diminish any joy for PSG fans or the players if they win the Champions League as the first French champions of the European Cup since Marseille in 1993.
Just winning the semifinal against Leipzig sparked wild celebrations in Paris — where fans flooded onto the Champs-Élysées — and in Lisbon where players danced into their hotel on Tuesday as if they already had the trophy.
There won’t be widespread support for PSG across France, as there was when Marseille beat AC Milan in the 1993 final, according to French football expert and author Philippe Auclair.
“Because of Qatar, this club has become unbeatable, almost invincible,” said Auclair, whose 2015 book “Fifagate” examined investigations into Qatar. “People see them (PSG) as a completely artificial project and led to a completely unbalanced league.”