On the rather plain Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) website, there is not much to see for the scale of the company.
Other than a bulky paragraph about Qatar, pictures of the board of directors, and a very brief description of what they believe, you cannot learn much. The most poignant takeaways are perhaps their messages on unity and vision.
QSI says it believes sport, leisure and entertainment effectively bring together “people regardless of nationality, colour or race” (unsurprisingly, it excludes LGBT+) and they wish to “contribute to the rapid growth of sports investments”. This is so they can become “internationally recognised as the leading sport, leisure and entertainment investment company in Qatar and abroad.”
The reason for this is because Qatar is a rentier state. Qatari citizens do not pay tax, causing the government to look elsewhere for income that is not resource-based. This is where the overlap of football comes into play and why the industry has been so important to the growth of the Gulf state.
It is in this context that QSI’s and other Qatari company’s success should be assessed. The conclusion? They’ve blown their aims out of the water.
In 2010, they secured the World Cup – albeit by dubious means to say the least – and now the perfect storm brewed for their tournament 18 months away: the availability to sign Lionel Messi to their crown jewel, Paris Saint-Germain.
Driven by Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, now the Emir of Qatar, QSI originally bought a 70% stake in Paris Saint-Germain on 30th June 2011. The following year, they purchased the club outright.
Damien Comolli, Liverpool’s director of football at the time, recognised what kind of future laid in store for the sport at the time. “PSG could be in a league of their own for the next five to 10 years,” he examined.
Ten years on, they are indeed in a league of their own. In June, the club shared QSI’s triumphs since their arrival: 27 trophies won for the men’s team; two trophies won for the women’s team, including their first-ever league title; 19 trophies for the handball team; revenue increased five-fold to €580 million; academy growth; and working with charities.
Predictably, these highlights are just the tip of the mountain they’ve accelerated beyond. Economic and political dominoes fell in tune to elevate the small peninsula from World Cup host to centre of the game.
One particular is PSG’s flourishing relationship with Nike and the Jordan brand. The partnership, which is worth around €67 million per season, made PSG more than a football club. They are a global brand, style and fashion trend.
Consequently, this gives PSG exactly what they crave: international acceptance, even if people do not realise it.
Adding Messi to this equation catapults it to a whole new level. It’s hard to find a bigger example where two enormous player brands from two different sports – Michael Jordan and Lionel Messi – have crossed over like this. The marketing departments must be having a field day.
Beyond PSG, Qatar has built other avenues into the sport through TV and sponsorship. The Qatari state-owned broadcaster started their football coverage in 2012 when they held Euro 2012 rights and won their first set of TV rights in Ligue 1. Since BeIN Sport has built a global TV network.
Coincidentally, the chairman of BeIN Sport also happens to be the chairman of QSI and president of PSG, Nasser Al-Khelaifi. That being said, it is little surprise that it was also he who succeeded Andrea Agnelli as president of the European Club Association. Al-Khelaifi seemingly moved up the political ladder while expanding his influence across the world.
Qatar Airways – the state-backed flight service – has paralleled Al-Khelaifi’s political and BeIN Sport’s success by becoming a major sponsor throughout the football industry. Their soft power influence stretches from South America, into Europe and Asia, and out towards Australia.
One of the best illustrations of Qatar's sponsorship network has been done by @Prof_Chadwick and @Fire_and_Skill (2017)👉https://t.co/G45MZs1HQp And in 2020 also by @TroelsBagerT and @anders_dehn from @tipsbladet as illustrated in the below picture. pic.twitter.com/TiUuy9tRXr
— Stanis Elsborg (@StanisElsborg) August 9, 2021
Ironically, Qatar Airways were in partnership with Barcelona for four years before QSI decided to poach Neymar from under them. In 2017, the agreement ended, and the two parties went their separate ways.
With that in mind, Messi is no stranger to Qatar’s soft power or being a part of an apolitical symbol, even if it is either indirectly or Messi is unconcerned by it.
In a separate complex issue, Messi has grown up and lived through the Spanish-Catalonia discourse. Despite having so much clout in the region, Messi never publicly discussed the Catalonia issue.
“The thing about global superstars like Messi is that they become a corporate symbol,” Barcelona writer Luis Mazariegos told EiF magazine. “For someone who is as big as Messi, it’s too dangerous for the brand of Messi to get involved in those political conversations.”
This topic can be carried over to his move to PSG. For Messi, it seems it was driven by three factors: affordability (PSG are one of the few teams that can match his worth), friendship with Neymar, Ángel Di Maria and Leandro Parades, and the chance to win the Champions League again.
For PSG, there are other factors involved. Yes, they have the Champions League in common, but PSG will undoubtedly exploit Messi’s stature whilst he is in Paris. Just on a sports business basis, they have good reason too. TV deals and sponsorship arrangements are there to be seized. PSG have been gifted a unique situation where they can capitalise on the capital Messi brings.
However, inevitably there will be soft power features alongside it. PSG are at the centre of football by Messi assuming his role next to Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. They are the Parisian Galácticos. The world will be at the gates of Le Parc des Princes thanks to them.
This season’s task will be to clean up the trophies, secure the Champions League and increase Qatar’s profile further. In the long run, assuring Messi and their other superstars are ready for the World Cup is essential. It would hardly be a surprise if they prioritised it heading into the 2022/23 season.
All of this is important, because Qatar seek to ensure people forget about the country’s Anti-LGBT+ laws if they are wearing their clothing. Or fans will kindly ignore the 6,500 migrant worker deaths in connection to the World Cup preparations if Messi becomes its mascot. Or spectators will respect PSG’s women’s team making history whilst not realising the discrimination Qatari women face at home.
This is why signing Messi is perhaps symbolically more important than any league title or trophy they have won so far. It entrenches a global fanbase into the narrative QSI is driving. Trophies are always inevitable at PSG. They manoeuvred the market into a condition so only they – and a couple of other teams – could compete financially. Taking Neymar from Barcelona was the beginning of that.
So, maybe, signing Messi is the greatest trophy PSG has won. Fans will flock, social media presence will rise, and their World Cup preparation will rank up.
They can take comfort that not only have they beaten the traditional clubs in the arms race, but they have also emotionally ripped away from the remaining joy Barcelona had. The legacy of the 6-1 defeat at Camp Nou is no more.
Alternatively, they created a new superpower that has concerns on and off the pitch and stretches around the world. Whatever happens now, it doesn’t really matter, even if the Champions League is somehow not delivered. Starpower, TV, sponsorship and the World Cup. Qatar has the lot.
Al-Khelaifi can think job well done. He has led the way from the beginning. Now, Qatar and PSG have everything they need to complete football. If you believe, they have already done it, they managed to do it in ten short years. Just how Comolli predicted.