Qatar sports buying turns to France

Anyone who thought winning the 2022 World Cup bid would be enough for Qatar should think again.

In the past month, the oil- and gas-rich nation has gone on a buying spree in Europe that appears aimed at building on its World Cup success and bolstering its reputation as a global sports player.

An investment fund controlled by the country's crown prince finalized a deal on Thursday to buy a 70 percent stake in Paris Saint-Germain, and last week Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera bought a share of the domestic TV rights of French league games from 2012 to 2016. State-owned Qatar Airways also announced last week that it was named the official airline for this year's Tour de France.

That follows the tiny, Gulf nation's announcement in March that Qatar plans to bid for the 2017 world athletic championships and that it has inked a €150 million ($200 million) deal with Barcelona to become the first sponsor to advertise on its shirts.

It also has long been rumored to be interested in buying Manchester United, but the English Premier League club's owners aren't willing to sell.

"It's an opportunity in political terms. It's an opportunity in business terms. It's an opportunity in reputation terms," James Dorsey, a senior research fellow of the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute and author of the blog, The Turbulent Word of Middle East Soccer?, said of the investments.

"What it produces for them is far greater visibility and access to an audience they wouldn't access normally, which feeds into their reputation and an ability to punch above their weight," he said.

Qatar is following a path laid down by the likes of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and to a lesser degree Bahrain, which have for years used sports as a tool to encourage tourism and raise their profiles. But Qatar is likely to go much further, partly because it has deeper pockets, greater global ambitions and is under intense pressure to show that it is a deserving host for the World Cup.

Simon Chadwick, a sports marketing expert at Coventry University in England who spent time in Qatar before it won the World Cup bid in December, said he expects to see the desert nation's shopping list only grow over time.

"Wherever there are assets that will provide some degree of power and influence, then I think the Qataris will invest," Chadwick said.

"Hence, Spain, Italy etc. will be possible targets. In countries like Germany, it might be more difficult because the Germans are more protective of their assets and industrial conditions don't conveniently lend themselves to successful overseas takeover bids."

Nasser al-Khelaifi, the new Qatari boss at PSG, refused to look beyond the PSG purchase in an interview published on Friday in the Le Parisien newspaper. He said Qatar Sports Investments' purchase was part of a long-term strategy to return the club to greatness with a near-term goal of qualifying for the Champions League.

"We wanted to acquire PSG because it's the only club in France's capital city. It's a big club with a history and super fans," al-Khelaifi said. "Acquiring PSG is a dream, we are very proud. All together, us, the management, the fans, the players, we will do everything so that the dream becomes reality."

In France, the response has been mostly positive to the increased Qatari presence, with most saying it is less about politics than an opportunity for the royal family to buy into a market that is relatively inexpensive at the moment.

"It opens up possibilities," PSG president Robin Leproux said. "It's the best thing that can happen to PSG to have a determined and financially strong shareholder to make PSG progress and join the big European clubs. It's excellent news to have this sound financial partner at a time when we know that French professional football is in financial difficulty."

Most clubs were especially heartened by the arrival of Al-Jazeera to the league.

"That's good news, Al-Jazeera is a powerful group," Lille president Michel Seydoux told Le Parisien. "They helped the Spanish championship to develop, and nobody complained. And it's also stimulating for competition."

The reaction from PSG fans to the takeover has been mixed. Some are bound to see the Qatari investment as a sign that the club's troubled past could be over. It has struggled in recent years because of poor results and hooliganism but managed to win the French Cup last year and placed fourth in the French league this season.

But in a sign of potential trouble for the Qatari owners, about 100 fans protested against the new owners outside the club's training ground on Thursday as the players started preseason training. Similar complaints were echoed by UEFA president Michel Platini on RMC radio who came out against the takeover.

"I'm not a fan. Football has been a big adventure based on identity," he said. "At the time, when there was Paris against Marseille, it was the people of Paris against the people of Marseille. Today the Qataris are coming, great, but I'm not a big fan. Today they are here but when they leave the club will be bankrupt."

Chadwick and others said there are other risks in Qatar's strategy not only for the country but for football. The flood of Gulf money — led by Abu Dhabi's Sheik Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan takeover of Manchester City — has resulted in skewed transfer values in European football, increased wages and a widening gap between the elite clubs and the rest of the teams.

"In seeking to boost the appeal and attractiveness of a club or a sport, excessive investment by countries like Qatar may ultimately undermine the appeal and attractiveness which they are seeking to create in the first place," Chadwick said.

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