Qatar’s massive investment in sport has been one of the stories of the last decade, one that has permeated through the industry and filtered into the popular consciousness.
At home, a relentless focus on major event hosting and high-end infrastructural development has brought profile and notoriety in almost equal measure. The impact of eye-catching innovation has often been undercut by the exposure of some less savoury local business practices, such as poor working standards in the booming construction industry and abuses of the fundamentally imbalanced kafala visa system. The advent of the 2022 Fifa World Cup, in particular, means that reforms addressing those issues are now matters of international concern.
The other element of Qatar’s sporting strategy – and the other way in which a tiny, if wealthy, country has come to have an outsized global influence – is overseas investment. In common with an international soft power agenda that has created cultural and commercial links through gas-fuelled purchasing heft, a sequence of high-profile acquisitions and sponsorship deals with the likes of FC Barcelona has taken Qatar to the heart of a range of sports markets.
The most prominent figurehead for the overseas push is Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the chairman of Qatar Sports Investment (QSI). Once a journeyman professional tennis player, he has been catapulted into the very elite of international sports businesspeople.
He is the chairman of BeIN Media Group, built from BeIN Sports, itself grown from the sports offshoot of the Doha-based but globally familiar Al-Jazeera. Heavy investment in premium sports rights – especially in the Middle East and in France, where it is now in a near duopoly with long-term market leader Canal Plus – were the basis of its early strategy, but it is now an increasingly diversified proposition. The takeover of Setanta Sports Australia in 2014 was the prelude to a much bolder series of buys, including Turkish pay-TV operator Digiturk and film studio Miramax.
To sports fans, however, Al-Khelaifi is probably best known as the chairman and chief executive of French soccer champions Paris Saint-Germain, and it was in that capacity that he agreed to an email interview with SportsPro in early December. QSI took control of the club in June 2011 and followed that up with nine-figure investment across all aspects of their operation – and drawing in large sums in sponsorship from other Qatari institutions. Most telling was a consistent outlay on escalating playing talent. Over the past five years, David Beckham, Angel di Maria, Thiago Silva, and, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic are just a few of those to sprinkle stardust across the Parc des Princes turf and turn a band of aristocratic underachievers into Ligue 1’s dominant force.
A club with two league titles in their history, and none since 1994, have gone on to win four consecutive championships since 2013. PSG won every major French trophy in 2016 and finished 31 points clear of Lyon – themselves serial winners a decade ago – in the top flight. But such overwhelming domestic success has only thrown the frustrated desire for international honours into starker relief.
The aching need for the PSG project to go global is readily apparent: alongside its support in branding and in the transfer market, QSI bankrolled a €75 million (US$80 million) upgrade of the Parc des Princes in time for Uefa Euro 2016. Yet the team have consistently failed to make the closing stages of the Uefa Champions League, creating the impression that they are still a step behind the very best.
The reasons given for this vary from the lack of preparatory challenges at home to a simple matter of timing, but PSG were not in a mood to keep waiting this summer. Despite three domestic titles, head coach Laurent Blanc was not retained, with Unai Emery given his chance after three Uefa Europa League trophies with Spanish club Sevilla. Emery has faced his own challenges this season, with the all-conquering Ibrahimovic moving on and the competition in Ligue 1 tightening. But PSG have reached the knock-out stages of the Champions League again. Their readiness to realise Al-Khelaifi’s ambition will become apparent in the new year.
How do you feel the Paris Saint-Germain project has progressed since QSI purchased the club?
As club president, I feel very happy when I look at all the titles we’ve already won: 13 in football, eight in handball, the French championship titles our youth teams have won this year, not to mention a Uefa Women’s Champions League final in 2015 and another in the youth league this year!
Over the last five years we have written the most glorious chapter in the club’s sporting history, while also building one of the biggest brands in international sport, one supported by more and more fans in France and around the world. We haven’t fulfilled our ambitions yet, though. We want to be even more successful in all departments, and I know that we can be.
How much do the individual profiles of those involved with the club – the players, the manager, and your own – feed into the international profile of the club?
The club’s international profile has always been at the heart of our project. Obviously, it’s important we do well in France, where we’ve just won back-to-back domestic quadruples, something no other European club has done before! It goes without saying, though, that our biggest objectives lie in the international arena. Paris Saint-Germain is a great club, and our aim is to make it an institution respected around the world. If we are going to make that happen, we have to win the [Uefa] Champions League. Each and every one of us – the players, the staff, the directors and the club’s employees – is working towards a goal that our supporters are dreaming of.
After last year’s easy title win, the table is tighter this year. Would a more competitive Ligue 1 improve Paris Saint-Germain’s own commercial prospects?
We’ve been saying for a long time that Ligue 1 needs to be as strong as possible. The more attractive the league is around the world, the more clubs can expect to attract the very best players and the more this virtuous circle will push sponsors and new investors to look at French clubs, who can then increase their revenue and grow bigger. Having a weak Ligue 1 would not be good for a club like ours.
What has the impact been of the renovation of the Parc des Princes?
Following two years of work and an investment of €75 million by the club, the Parc des Princes is now one of the most welcoming, most modern and safest stadiums in Europe. Its 48,000 seats have been changed, we’ve designed and fitted out superb hospitality areas, and all the stands are now more comfortable and offer excellent Wi-Fi connectivity, which only enhances the quality of the matchday experience for our spectators.
It was also important for us to give the players a superb stadium with the best pitch in Europe, which has really helped us improve the quality of our football. All we need to do now is improve the atmosphere in the stands. That’s what we’ve been doing in the last two months, welcoming back very passionate fans who had got out of the habit of coming.
In five seasons, the matchday incomes have been multiplied by four and today represent nearly €100 million each season.
What is the effect, commercially and in terms of identity, of the fact that each major town and city in France typically only has one team?
It’s hard to quantify that because, in the cities that do have more than one club, supporters tend to identify even more strongly with their team because of the local rivalries. Paris is a city that has rarely ever had two clubs in the top flight, and people have got very used to just having Paris Saint-Germain up there.
Paris and its suburbs have really got behind Paris Saint-Germain in the last few years. People of all backgrounds and walks of life rally around our colours, and, at international level, we are the capital city’s greatest sporting ambassador.
How important has the identity of the city of Paris been in the brand you’ve built around Paris Saint-Germain in recent years?
It’s very important. Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, and the very mention of its name has people dreaming. Having the Eiffel Tower in the badge is a sign of just how strong the connection is between the club and the city.
We want the club to become more and more synonymous with the legend of Paris. When tourists come to visit the city, Paris Saint-Germain should be right up there as one of the essential experiences for them to enjoy. Paris Saint-Germain is the only club of the most watched sport in the world located in one of the most iconic capitals in the world!
Have you found it difficult to convince long-term fans that they are a part of what the club will become in the future?
Fans are the life and soul of any club, which is something we’ve always been aware of. That’s why there’s never been any question of us leaving the Parc des Princes, which is the home of Paris Saint-Germain. The idea has always been to refurbish it and to maybe expand it in the near future.
It was also very important in our eyes to bring together all the different types of fans, from supporters who come with their families to the recently returned ultras, and to keep prices affordable for our fanbase.
Do you believe Paris Saint-Germain have moved on from their reputation as a club with problems around violence?
Yes. The club, and especially my predecessor Robin Leproux, took some very brave decisions in 2010, when a supporter was killed outside the stadium. It was the second time it had happened in three years, and it was time for the club and the authorities to take some drastic measures and bring a stop to this violence, which was threatening the very existence of Paris Saint-Germain. We’re delighted that things gave calmed down, though we’re going to carry on being very vigilant. It’s not a fight that you can ever say you’ve won.
Do Paris Saint-Germain need to win a European title in order to take the next step off the field? What is the true potential of the club?
Like I said, winning the Champions League will take the club to a new dimension. Any team that wins it is seen differently by everyone else. But, believe me, the big clubs see us as serious challengers now, and most of them want to avoid us in the last 16 of the Champions League. That’s a mark of respect in itself and it shows us that we’re on the right track.
Have you reassessed your goals for Paris Saint-Germain since taking over?
I look at what we’ve achieved: we’re firmly established in the top eight in Europe and we’ve become, with 31 trophies, the most successful club in France, ahead of Marseille. That makes me, and all of us, very, very proud. I’m a very ambitious president too, though, and I’m very demanding. I know that we can achieve even more, and that’s something I keep reminding all my teams of, at every level of the club.
What is the long-term goal for Paris Saint-Germain in terms of how the club will be run? Do you anticipate the ownership taking more of a hands-off approach?
We’ll continue to operate the way we have been doing since day one: to be there helping the club achieve the very best results at all levels.
How much do you look around at clubs like Manchester City or Chelsea, where there has been similarly sudden short-term investment, and draw comparisons between their approach and your own? Is there anything you can learn?
We have a lot of respect for what other investors have done at the clubs you mention, but we have respect for other clubs, too, like Leicester, for example. We have our own identity, though, and our own strategy. Every club looks around to see what everyone else is doing. That’s only natural.
Last April, for example, we paid a visit to Manchester City’s training centre. It’s top-class, but we’re looking to build our own centre in line with what we need and what our reference points are. By 2019/20, we will have built one of the biggest performance centres in the world in Poissy. I have no doubt people will talk about our club being a benchmark…
Do you have to address the perception that you have bought on-field success?
I think that view is a little misplaced. Money can get you certain players and certain coaches, but football is an extremely unpredictable business. You can’t buy success, which is something we should be grateful for! Nothing would make us more proud than achieving our biggest dreams through sheer hard work and perseverance. We will get there thanks to the great players we recruit but also thanks to the youngsters who come through the ranks at our academy. Adrien Rabiot, who today plays for his country, is a great example of this. Today we employ some 25 scouts charged with unearthing the stars of tomorrow and attracting them to our youth academy, which is recognised as among the finest in Europe.
Earlier this season, you were added to the Uefa Professional Football Strategy Council. What do you hope to achieve through that?
Being part of a body like that is very important for Paris Saint-Germain and for French football too. It allows us to keep abreast of the big issues in European football and also to put forward our ideas to ensure it remains the most attractive football on the planet.