PSG v Manchester City: a fixture embodying money’s force in football

Both clubs dine at Europe’s top table thanks to Gulf funding

Manchester City were taken over by Sheikh Mansour in 2008. Photograph: Getty

Manchester City were taken over by Sheikh Mansour in 2008. Photograph: Getty

 

The multi-layered significance of Manchester City lining up against Paris Saint-Germain at a glittering Parc des Princes in the Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday reaches far beyond the set-piece glamour of the occasion itself. The tie, between two eye-wateringly expensive and lavishly paid squads, embodies the determining force of money in modern football, in which international cast lists of players go to the European clubs which pay the most.

That City and PSG are now two of those mega-wealthy clubs heralds the game’s increasing openness to owners from anywhere buying its famous names; neither would be at the business end of Europe’s premier competition without their owners’ enormous cash injections. And this quarter-final is a spectacular reminder of how football club ownership has come to reflect broader global shifts; England’s only representative in the competition is owned by one of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, while PSG belongs to another tiny, rival gulf state: Qatar.

The influence of these two countries under the Parc des Princes floodlights – Abu Dhabi, one of the seven mini-states in the United Arab Emirates, has fewer than a million citizens in total while the number of Qatari citizens has been put at 278,000 – underlines their vast oil and gas wealth, of course, and strategic moves into western cultural investment. This economic power is gleaming in a Europe struggling with post-industrial financial crisis, and both football clubs embody that, having been sinking financially before they were saved by the gulf.

There is, too, a regional political dimension; the UAE and Qatar are close to enemies, supporting rival forces in the conflict-riven Middle East. Qatar financially backs Islamist groups, while the UAE determinedly opposes them and has had a crackdown internally, which has been criticised by campaign groups alleging human rights abuses. In 2014 the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors in protest at Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

The journey from such faraway geo-political wars to Eliaquim Mangala grappling with Zlatan Ibrahimovic on Parisian turf has its roots in both countries’ strategy of expanding their presence and influence, and into sport and culture.

Qatar’s efforts extend most powerfully and controversially to winning from Fifa’s 2010 executive committee the right to host the 2022 World Cup, while Abu Dhabi hosts a Formula One grand prix and is building branches of the Louvre art gallery and Guggenheim museums.

The actual takeovers of the clubs were different, however. City’s ownership, via a private equity company, the Abu Dhabi United Group, has always stressed it was a private purchase in 2008 by Sheikh Mansour, a senior scion of the ruling Al Nahyan family, not an actual state enterprise. Senior Abu Dhabi political figures, most prominently the chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, were brought in after the first, chaotic days of crude, boastful coverage led by the takeover’s front man, the Dubai property investor Sulaiman Al Fahim, who later briefly owned Portsmouth. Although City’s rebuilding since, helmed by Mubarak with a vast £1.2bn invested by Mansour, has been intended to reflect well on Abu Dhabi, they maintain it remains Mansour’s own venture.

At PSG there is no such nuance. The club is owned by the country itself, via a fund, Qatar Sports Investments, which bought it in June 2011 in a tale of the highest politics, tangled in the World Cup bid. It is a story now well told, which remains stunningly revealing about football’s place in the world view of the rich and powerful. Michel Platini, Uefa president at the time, before his six-year ban from all football activities for the £1.35m Sepp Blatter’s Fifa paid him in 2011 for work which he completed in 2002, has been most open about the discussions.

In November 2010, barely a fortnight before the World Cup vote, Platini had lunch at the Élysée Palace with his country’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the crown prince, now emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and the Qatari prime minister.

Platini has confirmed he knew that Sarkozy wanted him to vote for Qatar and Platini did change his voting intention after the meeting, from the US to Qatar, but he still maintains his president did not make a direct request: “Sarkozy never asked me to vote for Qatar but I knew what would be good,” Platini said in September.

Platini previously also told the Guardian that at the time of the lunch: “I knew Sarkozy wanted the people from Qatar to buy PSG.”

Sarkozy is known as a supporter of PSG, which was then struggling financially under the ownership of a US investment firm, Colony Capital. After that presidential and royal lunch Platini did vote for Qatar in the Fifa process whose consequences still reverberate through the scandal-strewn corridors of its Zurich headquarters, although he has always said it was not due to Sarkozy’s influence. After that France concluded lucrative trade deals with Qatar – and six months later QSI bought PSG.

Nasser al-Khelaifi, the Qatari chairman of QSI and PSG, is also chairman and chief executive of the state-owned broadcasting company, beIN SPORTS, formerly Al Jazeera Sport. Three weeks after the PSG purchase it paid for French Ligue 1’s TV rights, jointly with Canal+, a dramatically increased €607m a year from 2012-16. That deal was then renewed early, in 2014, increasing to €726m a year from 2016 to 2020. So, Qatar state money has since 2011 fuelled PSG into starry Champions League contenders and financially underpinned French football itself.

City’s takeover was less high politics, at first. The club was heading into financial crisis under the ownership of the ousted Thailand prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was wanted on corruption charges at home.

Mansour is said to be a football fan, like many people in the UAE which was a British protectorate until 1971, and he owned a club in Abu Dhabi, Al-Jazira. With Premier League clubs becoming serially bought by overseas investors, Mansour had his eye on doing so himself and City, although perpetually faltering, met his criteria: a big, well-supported club with a new stadium, built by the local council for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

After several days of Al Fahim talking up in the media the staggering wealth of the Abu Dhabi sheikh, Mubarak, chairman of the country’s strategic government arm, the Executive Affairs Authority, was appointed chairman, to bring a more planned and dignified approach to what has indeed been huge financial investment since.

The sponsorships by Etihad, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, which advertises the country around the world from the Manchester City pitchside hoardings, and a roster of other Abu Dhabi companies give City the look of a state enterprise – now with clubs in New York and Melbourne – but they maintain it is not.

The £200m academy built across the road from the stadium, and £20m college and community sports centre, have earned the owners good relations in impoverished east Manchester. They also nurtured City’s fans tenderly into the unfamiliar new era of moneyed success, before the £40-£60 ticket prices announced for the PSG return leg, which have drawn serious and scathing protest for the first time.

PSG’s charge to become Europe’s fourth-highest earning club, according to the accountants Deloitte, with €481m income in 2014-15, has been fuelled by the famous sponsorship deal with the Qatar Tourism Authority, reported to be for €200m a year. Uefa disregarded it by half in its 2014 assessment under financial fair play rules, which require “connected” sponsorship deals to be for proper market value.

City’s Etihad stadium and shirt sponsorship deal passed Uefa’s scrutiny but the club agreed not to seek an increase in two secondary deals, one of which is understood to have been with the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, for £15m a year.

The scale of Premier League TV deals and built-up commercial power will see City safe under FFP rules, but in France, even with Qatar-owned beIN jointly paying for the rights, PSG’s prospects for maintaining their new status are not as certain.

For now, though, the ruling class of two tiny gulf countries, obscure in the west just a few years ago, look to Paris, where the football clubs they have bought and funded advance their claims on Europe’s greatest sporting prize.

(Guardian service)

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