The departure of Neymar from Barcelona to Paris St Germain for a world record fee has it all. A young Brazilian soccer player who came to Europe to seek fame and fortune is offered ludicrous sums to abandon a world-famous club for a Qatari-bankrolled upstart.
The deal speaks volumes about the almost insane sums of money being thrown at players and clubs in Europe as the continent’s transfer market goes into hyper-drive. The influx of cash into European soccer over the past few years has been driven by the Gulf states and (more recently) by China, and by the enormous revenues earned by the top clubs through sponsorship and television rights.
This time last year, Manchester United set a world record transfer fee when they bought Paul Pogba from Juventus for (the equivalent of) $116 million. Neymar’s exercise of his release clause at Barca cost his new employers $263 million.
Qatar has seen international sport as critical in raising its profile, and it’s had the money to do so. In December 2010, against the expectations of many (and the raised eyebrows of not a few) it won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Soon after, it began sponsoring Barcelona through the Qatar Foundation — and in doing so, became the first named sponsor to appear on the front of players’ jerseys in the club’s century-long existence.
Qatar Sports Investments — owned by the state — bought Paris St Germain (PSG) five years ago for $170 million as part of the kingdom’s larger strategy to invest in global brands, whether in business, fashion, property or sport.
Sounds like a lot of money for an ordinary team in an ordinary league? Not really when you are sitting on more than $300 billion in assets — it’s a lunch.
The strategy was simple — spend heavily to make Paris St. Germain a European giant, to compete with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. And they’re getting there. PSG came within a few seconds of knocking Barcelona out of the Champions’ League last year — until Neymar himself scored twice. Perhaps that was the moment that PSG decided Neymar must be theirs. And perhaps that was the moment Neymar decided he deserved to be the center of attention — to step out of the shadow of Lionel Messi.
In a way, Qatar has mimicked what the United Arab Emirates did. The UAE marketed the “Emirates” by building a global airline, grafting the brand onto football clubs, investing heavily in promoting Dubai as a tourist destination and buying into blue-chip corporations.
But Qatar has done so at warp speed, just as it has expanded its footprint across the Middle East with a swashbuckling independence. That boldness has been on show since the birth of the Al Jazeera television network in 1996, but more dramatically in Qatar’s intervention (with weapons and cash) in Libya and Syria, and its support for the reconstruction of Gaza.
Whether buying football clubs or supporting Islamist rebel outfits, Qatar has let its money do the talking. Its good relations with Iran and embrace of radical causes such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have infuriated the conservative monarchies of the Gulf (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and Egypt, leading to the recent rupture of diplomatic ties and the closure of borders.
The measures have hurt a tiny state reliant on imports for daily life. Cows have been flown in from Germany to boost milk production; Qatar Airways has been forced to fly longer routes. Qatar has responded with a mixture of diplomatic outreach and defiance. It has sought out Turkey as a counter-balance to its big neighbors, its ministers have lobbied in Washington and Moscow. For now, an uneasy stalemate prevails.
Signing Neymar to PSG is just one measure of that defiance, as in: “We’ll continue to throw our money around to build a global brand — as well as make strategic investments in the world’s biggest companies.”
It’s also a measure of Qatar’s drive to build an identity by associating with the best. When Barcelona signed a sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways in 2013, the airline’s boss, Akbar al-Baker, said the carrier shared the “values, ambitions, courage and excellence” of the club.
That deal has just run out. And when Neymar pulls on his number 10 PSG shirt — perhaps against Ligue 1 side Amiens this Saturday — the logo on the front will be “Fly Emirates.”
As someone once said, “It’s a funny old game.”