A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Graphic designers have taken to neatly incorporating a red oil drill into the design of Paris Saint-Germain’s logo. The decision of Qatar Sports Investments [QSI] to extend its already impressive portfolio with the purchase of a 70 per cent stake in the club for a reported €50 million has unsurprisingly been the main topic of discussion in France this summer.
The Emirate’s continued acts of ‘diplomacy through sport’, a term used by the economics professor at the Sorbonne, Frédéric Bolotny, didn’t stop there either. In addition to their surprising move to capture the overseas rights to Ligue 1 from 2012 until 2018, the Doha-based TV network Al-Jazeera, also won a package of the domestic rights to show two games a week from 2012 until 2016 for €90m per year.
Nasser al-Khelaïfi, the suave head of Al-Jazeera Sport who is set to become the President of Paris Saint-Germain, insisted during an interview with L’Équipe that “if the two acquisitions coincide, it’s purely chance,” but many are sceptical.
In general, however, the emergence of the Qataris has been welcomed. “It’s a very good thing for French football,” claimed Lille President Michel Seydoux. “I always rejoice when important people are interested in our game,” added Jean-Michel Aulas, his counterpart at Lyon.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the ruling al-Thani family has tried to buy Paris Saint-Germain. In 2006, they were invited to the negotiating table when Canal + put the club up for sale. Hostility from the Mayor of Paris and his assistant, who called the Qataris “exotic”, meant the deal fell through and Paris Saint-Germain ended up in the hands of the American fund Colony Capital instead.
The atmosphere has since changed. “The Qataris have arrived at the right moment,” wrote France Football editor in chief Rémy Lacombe. Last month a report revealed Ligue 1 clubs are €114 million in debt and even with the entry of Al-Jazeera following the retreat of Orange from the TV rights market, the new deal entitles them to €158 million per year less than its predecessor.
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It’s certainly no exaggeration to say that French football is crying out for fresh investment and hitherto its efforts to entice have floundered. “Today most clubs in Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 are looking for a majority or minor shareholder,” admitted the director general of France’s union of football clubs, Philippe Diallo. “But with the financial crisis which has been raging since 2008, it has been difficult to find cash.”
According to an investigation by the magazine So Foot, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy intervened to help Paris Saint-Germain. A well-known supporter of the club, he met Sheikh Tamin al-Thani at the Élysée palace on November 23. Michel Platini was also invited. “He told me that the Qataris were good people,” recalled the Uefa President. Ten days later Platini voted for Qatar to be awarded the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup.
A ‘special relationship’ had been formed, one that So Foot claim would impact upon Paris Saint-Germain. By now Qatar has become a privileged partner in the French economy. They hold interests in some of the country’s biggest corporations like Total, Air Liquide, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company and literally helped get the project to build the A380 airbus off the ground.
Paris Saint-Germain would be a drop in the ocean. After the Qatar Foundation agreed a five-year shirt sponsorship deal with Barcelona worth €160 million and Abdullah Bin Nasser al-Thani’s purchase of Malaga for €36 million, it fits perfectly with the Emirate’s project of garnering visibility and most importantly of all legitimacy in the eyes of the football world ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
Still, some sceptics have persisted with the question: why Paris Saint-Germain?
Isn’t it obvious? “Paris Saint-Germain have an enormous potential,” al-Khelaïfi explained. “They’re also the only club in a capital city, which can count on a population of 12 million people. It’s something unique.”
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Factor in the low cost of the operation in comparison with recent Premier League acquisitions, the low barriers to entry in comparison with members-owned clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona, the absence of the 51 per cent rule that distinguishes the Bundesliga from its competitors, and it’s not difficult to see the allure.
Funding is also available to renovate stadia in light of France winning the rights to host Euro 2016, with the Minister of Sport Chantal Jouanno announcing that the government will contribute €10 million towards the refurbishment of the Parc des Princes.
Plus this is Paris, a city renowned for its beauty with a much greater appeal to prospective players than some of the other nouveau riche clubs splashing the cash. It’s not the Dagestan of Anzhi Makhachkala and the rain is perhaps more bearable in Paris than in Manchester.
But what about the football? Yes, while at the moment the standard of Ligue 1 may not be equal to that of La Liga or the Premier League, it’s certainly hoped that Paris Saint-Germain will bring the spotlight back on to French football and with it other ambitious investors.
The charming al-Khelaïfi has also downplayed fears that QSI’s interest in Paris Saint-Germain only extends until the 2022 World Cup. “There is not a fixed date for the resale of the club,” he insisted. “10 years? 20 years? I don’t know. I repeat it’s a long-term commitment.”
Everything so far indicates that the Qataris are serious. “We know how to spend our money,” al-Khelaïfi smiled. “We are not here to throw money out of the window, but to realise well-thought out and effective investments.”
The appointment of Leonardo as the club’s new director of sport or ‘super manager’ gave an impression of that shrewdness - first of all from a PR perspective, as it showed if not an intimacy with Paris Saint-Germain’s history than an understanding that the decision would be popular with the fans considering his 14-month spell at the Parc as a player in the mid to late `90s and that performance against Steaua Bucharest (video below).
Second, the multi-lingual Leonardo suited the role given his time as a director at Milan. He brings expertise even if there are suggestions that his part in the signings of Kaká and Alexandre Pato have been overstated.
Leonardo is by now the face of Paris Saint-Germain as the previous President Robin Leproux has found out to his cost.
Initially assured of his position by al-Khelaïfi, the man who did such a courageous job in sanitising the Parc last season by ridding it of a nefarious hooligan element with his ‘Everyone PSG’ initiative, soon recognised that his powers were reduced to such an extent following Leonardo’s arrival that his exit was inevitable.
The future of coach Antoine Kombouaré, though guaranteed ahead of the start of this season, is also uncertain with some in the French media believing that while Arsène Wenger isn’t a realistic target at the moment or in the short-term, a project such as Paris Saint-Germain’s could be enough to one day lure him away from Arsenal.
Instability lies not just in the dugout, but in the dressing room too. “The group is working but we’re not 100 per cent in our heads,” Kombouaré confessed. “I can understand what the players are thinking when they see certain signings coming in.”
Take Nicolas Douchez as an example. The 31-year goalkeeper brought in from Rennes agreed to join on a free transfer before the takeover and could expect to become Paris Saint-Germain’s No 1. Since then, Leonardo has drafted in Salvatore Sirigu, the Italy international from Palermo and any certainty that he had of becoming a regular is gone.
Douchez - the goalkeeping equivalent of a straight-to-video movie
Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain have, as expected, upgraded and rejuvenated the squad to such a degree that they can’t but be considered anything less than genuine title contenders if not favourites for their first championship since 1994.
Kombouaré finally got his man, Milan Biševac, the Serbia international defender with whom he formed a close bond at Valenciennes. Jérémy Ménez has replaced the departing Ludovic Giuly and Blaise Matuidi the retiring Claude Makélélé. They have both been joined in midfield by the injury prone Momo Sissoko.
Last season’s rather impotent attack of Mevlüt Erdinç and Guillaume Hoarau has also been bolstered by a move for Lorient striker Kévin Gameiro, the closest thing Ligue 1 has to David Villa with 39 goals in his last 71 games, and reports this morning claim a bid has been lodged with Manchester United for Dimitar Berbatov.
The transfer strategy is clear. “We are not going to buy 10 Messis, that’s not how you build a team,” Leonardo said. Indeed, the pursuit of players like Ménez and Gameiro both of whom are lifelong Paris Saint-Germain fans - the latter growing up with a poster of Marco Simone on his bedroom wall - is a conscious effort at fostering the spirit embodied in Mamadou Sakho, the team’s 21-year captain, who was born and raised in the city and came through the club’s academy.
“We are not trying to recruit Lionel Messi, but we want to invest in the greatest talents of tomorrow and, among them, there will be French players,” al-Khelaïfi added. “We want the new Messi.” The reported €40m plus signing of Palermo’s Argentina international playmaker Javier Pastore, a French transfer record, suggests Paris Saint-Germain have sensationally already realised that objective.
How the 22-year-old trequartista corresponds exactly with Kombouaré’s preferred 4-4-2 formation - a hallmark of his coaching career so far - remains to be seen and raises questions. For instance, is it evidence that Kombouaré wasn’t consulted on the transfer? Probably not. Or is it a sign that his opinion matters less than that of Leonardo when it comes to recruitment? Perhaps. The fans, however, really couldn’t care less, not with rivals Marseille all but waving the white flag.
“We have to call them the galactiques of Paris,” said the OM President Vincent Labrune. Indeed, with backers like QSI, Paris Saint-Germain are on another planet.
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