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Friday, January 21, 2022

OPINION: PSG’s Messi signing is ‘Brand Qatar’ in action


The Argentinian player sealed a deal with the Qatar-owned team last week after leaving FC Barcelona, ending a 21-year journey with the football team.

French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once observed that, “a goal without a plan is just a wish”, the sentiment of which Paris Saint Germain fans would do well to contemplate. Whether a wish, a fantasy or a dream-come-true, the signing of Lionel Messi by the Parisian club has enraptured supporters of Les Parisiens.

For those involved in orchestrating the Argentinian’s sensational move to the Blue and Reds, the goal is clear: to win the UEFA Champions League. Aside from last season’s Ligue 1 hiccup, when PSG finished second in the Ligue 1, the club has recently been perennially winner of the French league trophy.

PSG has jumped to 3 billion euros in value in last decade: Al-Khelaifi


Champions League success has, however, proved to be more elusive. Although the team made it to the 2019/2020 final, it lost against Bayern Munich. Last season, the French capital city giants stumbled in the semi-final against Abu Dhabi owned Manchester City. During this coming season, Qatar Sports Investments (PSG’s owner) and Mauricio Pochettino (the team’s coach) will be hoping to break their competition hoodoo.

Although Messi’s acquisition is somewhat serendipitous, courtesy of his former club FC Barcelona’s financial mismanagement, the plan is simple: enable him to create and score the goals that will propel the 51-year-old club to European glory in 2022.

The symbolism of winning the tournament at the end of this coming season would be striking. After all, just five months after the scheduled date upon which the Champions League final will be played, Qatar will host the World Cup. A PSG victory in combination with a successful FIFA tournament would communicate a distinctive message both to football and the world in general.

“For its size, Qatar therefore enjoys a particularly strong degree of power and influence, yet this was all part of the plan that was launched to accompany Doha government’s vision.”

Qatar and its investments in football haven’t got to this point based on wishes alone. The 2008 launch of its 2030 National Vision established the goal, and the subsequent formulation of a national development strategy created the plan. At the heart of both has been sport, the belief being investments in the likes of football can help the country to achieve its desired politico-economic and socio-cultural outcomes.

Double-header footballing success next year would serve as an important metric in measuring progress towards the country’s national vision, whilst providing an interim return on the massive investments Qatar has made into football. There remains considerable unease amongst some about the financial resources lavished upon PSG, but this is only part of the story.

When QSI acquired the club, its annual revenues amounted to a paltry $118 million per year. According to Forbes, the club is now generating almost $600 million per year. This was always an underlying motive for purchasing PSG; the club’s management has cannily developed its brand and marketing, for instance through fashion and associations with the likes of Nike and Jordan. It is now becoming a commercial behemoth. 

Yet the plan isn’t all about money, political machinations play a part too. The big-name signings, trophy successes and stylish fashion offerings have helped Qatar project soft power aimed at promoting the country’s attractiveness. As such, it’s no coincidence that the Qatar Tourism Council, Qatar National Bank and Ooredoo are amongst PSG’s commercial partners – this is Brand Qatar in action.

Read also: Lionel Messi agrees to join Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain following Barcelona exit

At the same time, QSI’s chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi has used ownership of the club to burnish Qatar’s credentials in Europe and propel it to a position of some considerable power. Al-Khelaifi is now also Chairman of the European Clubs Association and a member of UEFA’s Executive Committee. This means Qatari interests are firmly embedded within European football, in turn supported by a Qatar Airways’ sponsorship deal with UEFA.

For its size, Qatar therefore enjoys a particularly strong degree of power and influence, yet this was all part of the plan that was launched to accompany Doha government’s vision. It elevates Qatar’s profile and reputation; brings legitimacy to the nation; and provides a level of safety for a country that can sometimes seem geographically vulnerable.

Though de Saint-Exupéry’s words help clarify QSI’s nurturing of PSG, the words of Scottish writer Robert Burns should nevertheless be heeded: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. In this moment, it may seem unfathomable that the French club could fail in its quest to lift the Champions League trophy in May next year. But it could happen.

This would be a blow to Qatar’s ambitions and to its sense of self, though it wouldn’t be terminal. Success in the making of a country cannot be assessed solely by reference to the outcome of a single football match. Even so, Qatar needs to remain vigilant to the way in which others see PSG, the country as a whole, its ambitions and its motives.

What may seem like matters of national policy and strategy in Doha, can sometimes be viewed very differently in other parts of the world. Critics often accuse PSG of having bought its way to success, fuelled by Qatar’s gas and oil money. This leads others to see the club as being inauthentic and Qatar as being more concerned about status and vanity than anything else.

Read also: Qatar’s Al-Khelaifi introduces Messi as newest PSG signing

Furthermore, there are several strident commentators who maintain that Qatar’s investment in PSG (and, for that matter, the World Cup) are a diversionary tactic. Often labelled as ‘sport washing’, they believe the country’s football investments are a deliberate attempt to distract from issues such as the treatment of migrant labour.

In imagining that Lionel Messi scores the Champions League winning goal at Saint Petersburg’s Gazprom Arena next May, Qataris should therefore remain vigilant to attitudes and perception of those in nations with which their country is seeking to engage.

This shouldn’t just be a wish, there should be a plan to ensure that Qatar makes the most of what football success in 2022 could deliver.

Professor Simon Chadwick is a global professor of the Eurasian Sport Industry at Emlyon.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Doha News, its editorial board or staff.

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