Following the money in European football helps gain perspective in the power that sport has around the world. Financial individuals and groups that span the globe look to promote their business interests by investing in soccer through a variety of channels. The first part of this series examined the small but influential Middle Eastern nation of United Arab Emirates. The Middle East has recently played a prominent role in world wide investing, including soccer in other nations. Qatar, the tiny nation that made a splash in the public eye after winning the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, has turned the soccer nation’s attention on their small country, and not necessarily in a positive way.
Qatar’s World Cup bid and the controversy surrounding it have been discussed ad nauseam. What many fail to understand is the history of Qatar and its rising interest in soccer that eventually drove the nation to place a bid to host the World Cup.
Qatar, like the United Arab Emirates, is located on the Persian Gulf, adjacent only to Saudi Arabia. The tiny nation gained its independence from Britain in 1971. But like many imperialistic nations, they receive cultural and traditional cues from the former protectors. It was Britain that likely left Qatar with an interest in soccer (the same way that Spanish influence in South America left many nations with a love for soccer while the United States left Cuba with a passion for baseball). Qatar is an extremely wealthy nation, with most of their wealth originating from oil and natural reserves. Like the U.A.E, they too have a monarchy which has passed down their vast wealth and power along a bloodline.
The first major investment into European football is Sheik Al-Thani’s purchase of Spanish club Malaga. Al-Thani bought the team with the intention of turning it into a world class club. Al-Thani spent an estimated $80 million in 2012 to sign players which helped the team reach its first appearance in the prestigious UEFA Champions League. Playing in the Champions League is a great financial boost for a club as well as a boost in exposure to the rest of the world. Unfortunately for the club, Financial Fair Play has hurt the relatively small side since it cannot turn a large enough profit to cover the spending on players. This fact, coupled with delays in local development projects for the club, has led to Al-Thani threatening to leave Malaga.
Qatar’s first big thrust into global soccer relevance was driven by being the first commercial sponsorship for Barcelona FC, replacing UNICEF beginning in 2011 in a deal worth $195 million over six years (£127 million). The Qatar Foundation, founded by the wife of Qatari leader Sheikha Mozah in 1995, works almost exclusively on education and research projects and is considered a non-profit. The government-owned Qatari Airways also partnered with Barcelona in 2013 in a deal worth $137 million (€96 million). The deal is made obvious by the number of Qatari Airways logos featured around the stadium as well as in the museum dedicated to the club. These two groups are hoping their investment will not be impacted by Barcelona’s recent transfer ban imposed by FIFA.
Prior to the Qatari Airways deal, Paris Saint-Germain from France’s Ligue 1 was purchased by the now Emir (ruler) of Qatar Sheik Tamim in 2011. Technically speaking, the club is owned by Qatar Sports Investments. The club then went on to sign costly marquee players such as Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and most recently, David Luiz. The club has made it to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals in 2012 and 2013 since Sheik Tamim took over. Qatar Sports Investments has also been linked to assisting David Beckham in gaining financial backing for a stadium in Miami.
Qatar is unique compared to other Middle Eastern nations (including the U.A.E) in that it has made efforts to build up its domestic league. The Qatar Stars League has fourteen teams and has been in operation since 1973. The nation has not qualified for a World Cup nor has it developed any significant domestic talent, however, the tiny nation has had mild success at attracting top talent to the Qatar Stars League, even acquiring well-known players in the 1980s and 1990s. Most recently, Swansea City standouts Chico Flores and Pablo Hernandez both agreed to a move to Qatari clubs just one week prior to the start of the 2014-15 Barclay’s Premier League season.
Qatar’s interest in soccer from a financial and sporting perspective is longstanding. The nation will remain in the spotlight for the time being while under the scrutiny of the public over their successful World Cup bid. Considering that many of the nation’s soccer investors are tied to the Qatari government, look for them to use their sporting ties to improve their image and promote the nation’s interest in becoming a leader in a global economy outside of their energy reserves. Following the money in soccer has recently led to Middle Eastern nations. The rise of financial dominance in several Middle Eastern nations is often ignored. But nations such as Qatar and the U.A.E are hoping that fans of soccer are following the money.