The Long Read: A tough year for Qatar and Al-Khelaifi

Nasser Al-Khelaifi has masterminded Qatar's big-money push into global sport. But, as the events of 2017 demonstrate, with greater influence comes greater scrutiny.

The Long Read: A tough year for Qatar and Al-Khelaifi

It’s been a funny old year for Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Qatari official whose influence in the sports industry has grown in line with that of his tiny, natural resource-rich Gulf state.

Al-Khelaifi is perhaps best known as the chairman and chief executive of French soccer champions Paris Saint-Germain, but in reality he wears many hats. He moonlights, for example, as the chairman of Qatar Sports Investment (QSI), the government-funded investment vehicle that continues to channel Qatar’s vast sovereign wealth into the sports industry like there’s no tomorrow, including into PSG, who it bought in June 2011.

As well as masterminding QSI’s international push, Al-Khelaifi also serves as the chairman of Doha-based BeIN Media Group, the Al Jazeera-owned TV network built from BeIN Sports. Launched in 2012, the fledgling broadcaster has spent billions of dollars on sports rights and bullishly expanded overseas in recent years, entering international markets such as France, North America and Australia.

Together, those roles at QSI, PSG and BeIN have catapulted Al-Khelaifi, a former professional tennis player, into the very elite of international sports businesspeople. But with greater influence comes greater scrutiny.

At a time when Qatar’s ongoing preparations for the 2022 Fifa World Cup have drawn stern criticism from many quarters for their apparent disregard for human rights - and in a year when Qatar itself has faced a diplomatic crisis, cut off by many of its neighbours in the Gulf - Al-Khelaifi has found himself in the crosshairs as the target of some high-profile inquiries.

This summer, the spotlight long trained on the 43-year-old intensified after PSG sealed the world record transfer of Brazilian star Neymar from Barcelona for €222 million, a deal swiftly followed by a €180 million agreement to sign AS Monaco striker Kylian Mbappe on the completion of a one-year loan this season. Both mega-money moves subsequently led to a Uefa investigation to determine whether PSG’s transfer activity complies with the confederation’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

If that wasn’t cause for personal concern per se, Al-Khelaifi is also currently the subject of a criminal investigation being conducted by the Swiss Attorney General (OAG) into the awarding of media rights for the Fifa World Cup. The investigation is linked to alleged bribes offered by Al-Khelaifi to former Fifa secretary general Jérôme Valcke to grant BeIN the rights to the 2026 and 2030 editions of the tournament in certain countries. Al-Khelaifi has already been quizzed by Swiss authorities, having voluntarily met with them last month.

But that’s not all. In a US federal court in Brooklyn this week, Santiago Peña, a former financial executive at the Argentinian marketing company Full Play Group, one of several firms accused of paying millions of dollars in bribes to South and Central American soccer officials, detailed how Al-Khelaifi, in his capacity as QSI chairman, had previously been in secretive negotiations with the controlling principals of Full Play to acquire the company.

Peña, who worked at Full Play between 2009 and 2015 before becoming a star witness for US prosecutors, revealed that Al-Khelaifi was working on a takeover deal with Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, the father and son duo who were both indicted by US prosecutors on corruption charges - including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy - as part of a sprawling investigation that memorably surfaced following dawn raids at a Zurich hotel in May of 2015.

According to Peña’s testimony at the trial of three former soccer officials, the deal would have seen QSI obtain 51 per cent of Full Play for US$212 million, with the option to acquire a further 19 per cent at a later date, while the Jinkis family would have continued to operate the company after the proposed takeover was completed.

In the end, however, QSI dropped its interest, apparently spooked by the US Department of Justice probe. Full Play’s reputation was, after all, in tatters, and the Jinkis had taken to evading US prosecutors in their native Argentina. As it turned out, Peña would quickly delete emails relating to the takeover negotiations, a move he said this week was done “in order to protect the company” from further damage.

Following Peña’s testimony, a QSI spokesperson confirmed to The New York Times that takeover talks took place. “Qatar regularly look at investment with their funds,” the spokesperson said. “This investment was proposed and considered. After a review it was decided not to pursue it. This happens very often.”

Though there are no suggestions of any wrongdoing on the part of the Qataris in relation to Full Play, the details set out in Peña’s testimony raise pressing questions about Al-Khelaifi and QSI’s intentions in global sport. Clearly, the Qataris had seen Full Play as a potentially attractive investment opportunity and a direct route into the lucrative Latin American soccer rights market. But was there more to their interest than a straight-up investment play?

Had the deal gone through, BeIN Sports presumably stood to benefit through its newfound links with Full Play, whose portfolio includes the international rights to many national leagues and federations in South America. Notably, Full Play also represented one-third of Datisa, a sham company it allegedly concocted along with rival marketing agencies Torneos y Competencias and Traffic Sports to acquire coveted broadcast and marketing rights tied to the Copa America through illicit means, and which was named as a conspirator in the US-led investigation.

Had QSI completed its proposed takeover, it stands to reason that BeIN Sports would have been in line to gain at least some programming rights from Full Play - rights that could have provided a platform on which to launch in Latin America. (Incidentally, the broadcaster has labelled its Miami-based North American operation as BeIN Sports Americas, even though its channels are only available in the US and Canada.)

In any case, QSI appears to have dodged a bullet by pulling its interest in acquiring Full Play, yet there remain lingering questions surrounding the proposed deal. It is unclear, for instance, how much Al-Khelaifi knew of the Jinkis’ alleged conduct. While a QSI spokesperson told The Guardian on Tuesday that the company decided against buying Full Play “after closer inspection” and in light of the unfolding Fifa corruption scandal, Peña testified that Al-Khelaifi was discussing the deal “for more than one year”. That the talks were shrouded in secrecy - only Al-Khelaifi, Peña, the Jinkis' and the Full Play accountant Sergio Rabinovich were aware of them, according to Peña - will also raise a few eyebrows, as will Peña's eagerness to delete the secret emails.

What's more, further alarm bells will be rung by Peña’s revelation that he kept a ledger of the bribes paid to officials, assigning codenames taken from automotive companies to those who received the illicit payments. During his testimony Peña also revealed that two of the payments were recorded as ‘Q2022’, a label that suggests bribes may have been paid to secure votes for Qatar’s World Cup bid.

Indeed, that suggestion had already been made by Alejandro Burzaco, the former chief executive of Torneos y Competencias and another witness for US authorities who testified earlier in the trial. Last week, Burzaco told of how, in 2011, the late Julio Grondona, the ex-head of the Argentine FA and a former Fifa senior vice president, was angered by the fact that the Qataris had yet to pay him his full multi-million dollar bribe for his vote.

In the face of the controversy sparked by their successful World Cup bid in 2010, the Qataris have persistently denied accusations of wrongdoing in the 2022 bidding process. The jury remains out on that one, of course, but one thing is for sure: the suspicion surrounding the country's activities in sport - and those of Al-Khelaifi himself - is unlikely to subside anytime soon.