Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Neymar, PSG and the Qatar World Cup

Alaa Abdel-Ghani traces the mystery connection between the French club that bought the Brazilian superstar and the Gulf state’s dubious 2022 football extravaganza


Neymar does not deserve the kind of money he’s going to receive from the French club Paris St Germain. In fact, no athlete, in football or otherwise, is worth $1 million a week, part of the Brazilian’s record-breaking 222 million euro transfer from Barcelona.

To be sure, Neymar is a fantastic player. His flamboyant style of play, his goals, his assists and his moments of brilliance are in a class of their own. The 25-year-old was part of world football’s most potent attacking triumvirate alongside Lionel Messi, and Uruguay star Luis Suarez. Since arriving to Barcelona in 2013, Neymar has helped the club win the Champions League, two league titles and three Copa del Reys. He has scored more than 100 goals. He has also scored 52 goals in 77 appearances for Brazil. Neymar’s goal in the penalty shootout clinched the gold medal for Brazil the 2016 Olympic final in Rio de Janeiro. And the statistics don’t tell half the story of Neymar’s jaw-dropping skills and general genius.

Still, he’s not good enough to make all this money. Even for the sake of argument, if we agree Neymar deserves this stratospheric salary, it would have to be because he is either the best player in the world today or the best in history. On both counts, Neymar falls short.

The best in history are arguably his countryman Pelé and Maradona. The best players today – and maybe history as well – are five-time world players of the year Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, four times the year’s best. The four, as well as others, remain way ahead of Neymar who would have to play many more years at an exceptional level to hope his name is mentioned in the same breath as these legends.

For good measure, Neymar is not the best Brazilian in history. You can pick dozens of better players from the Brazilian teams which won five World Cups, not to mention the brilliant 1982 squad that didn’t. And if Neymar is the best Brazilian out there today, that’s not saying much considering Brazil’s gigantic collapse in their World Cup of 2014.

However, if after this systematic takedown of Neymar, he was nevertheless able to find a club that could shower him with so much money, more power to him. He’s a lucky man. He found a club swimming in cash, PSG.

It is strange, though, that PSG has such money to spend, given that it does not play in the wealthier and more renowned English, Spanish or Italian leagues. But it’s not odd when you discover that PSG is owned by the oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar, in the form of the company Qatar Sports Investments whose chairman is Qatari mega businessman Nasser Al-Khelaifi. So, Neymar’s money is to come not just from TV rights, sponsors and ticket and t-shirt sales, but from petro dollars.

Which is fine. PSG, which more than likely is propped up by the Qatari ruling family, obviously has money to flaunt. When Qatar Sports Investments bought the club in 2012, it spent close to 1.5 billion euros in transfer fees, wages, restructuring the club, and the building of a new 200 million euro training ground. And now it is spending lavishly on Neymar.

Here is where the plot thickens with thick smoke. According to the British daily The Daily Telegraph, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is facing a criminal investigation in his country over allegations he accepted bribes to support Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

The newspaper recently disclosed that French investigators are examining whether Sarkozy may have received funds from transactions, including from the sale of – surprise, surprise and lo and behold – the Paris Saint Germain football club to Qatar.

Prosecutors in France are investigating whether Sarkozy took kickbacks during the sale of several French companies to Qatari investors, including a waste disposal company, a French utility firm and PSG.

Specifically, French authorities are investigating whether Sarkozy took millions of dollars during the sale of a five per cent stake in this waste disposal company by a Qatari state-owned investment company. Investigators want to confirm where $216 million, a sum they believe was “syphoned” off the sidelines, went.

The question is whether the same thing happened with PSG. Was the club in any way involved, like the waste disposal company, in the murky way in which Qatar won the 2022 bid? 

A few notes to keep in mind: Sarkozy was president when France backed Qatar to host the World Cup; Sarkozy is known to have close ties with the former chief executive of PSG, Sebastien Bazi, who sold the club to Qatar close to the time of the Gulf state’s bid for the World Cup; and the former head of FIFA, the disgraced Sepp Blatter, has claimed that Sarkozy was a central figure in ensuring that the plan to have Qatar win the 2022 bid was supported by Paris and the other European capitals.

In 2013, a French football magazine accused Sarkozy of having “colluded” with the Qataris to get France’s football association to support Qatar’s bid. The Daily Telegraph makes no such bald assertion. A spokeswoman for the French national financial prosecutor’s office said they were “carrying out two separate preliminary inquiries” into the waste disposal company and the World Cup bid. She said there was no established link between the two inquiries and Sarkozy was not “formally and personally targeted at this stage”.

Whereas the French connection to the 2022 World Cup is not crystal clear, the selection process for the 2022 tournament has been mired in very public allegations of widespread corruption and bribery. In 2015, US federal prosecutors indicted top officials from FIFA, football’s world governing body, on bribery and money laundering charges. Blatter was the head honcho of this sleaze and was subsequently forced to step down and was banned from soccer for six years.

Qatar was at the centre of this skullduggery and as such is facing a series of international criminal inquiries into its successful World Cup bid amid claims that huge bribes were paid to secure support. Last month, the German Bild tabloid said it obtained the “suppressed” 2014 report on the bid authored by former FIFA independent ethics investigator Michael Garcia. Garcia, an American lawyer, quit in December 2014 in protest at the handling of his report which was abridged by FIFA’s executives.

The 42-page report, watered down from 403 pages, cleared Qatar of corruption allegations. Speaking before he resigned, Garcia said the version of his report that FIFA published contained “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations.” According to Bild, Garcia’s missing pieces included three FIFA executive members being flown to a party in Rio in a private jet belonging to the Qatari federation before the vote for the 2022 hosting rights and details of a $2 million sum allegedly paid to the 10-year-old daughter of a FIFA official.

Ever since Garcia dramatically resigned in protest at the way his landmark investigation was handled two years ago, the contents of his secret report have been one of sport’s great mysteries. No longer. Bild is spilling the beans in a series of stories.

While the leaked document may not represent a smoking gun, it will raise awkward questions over FIFA’s decision in 2014 to clear Qatar’s bid to host the event considering how small the country is, how hot it is and that it has no reputation to speak of in world football.

There were reportedly numerous attempts by Doha to influence voting officials. The Garcia report revealed how Qatar used bribery tactics which included sponsoring the Confederation of African Football Conference in Angola in January 2010 to market its bid for the World Cup.

Garcia had also raised concerns over the involvement in talks over an energy deal between Qatar and a Thai gas company of an adviser to Thailand’s football federation. Thailand’s football federation chief is a FIFA executive committee member.

It was “inappropriate” for such a liquid nitrogen gas deal to be “negotiated through football channels” so close to the vote, which was held in December 2010, Garcia said.

Qatar’s use of its Aspire Academy, dedicated to training young players from Qatar and across Africa and Asia, was also used to “curry favour with executive committee members,” according to the report. Aspire was implicated “in a decisive manner” in “the manipulation of FIFA members who had the right to vote”.

As if its provocative World Cup bid was bad enough, Qatar is in the middle of another major controversy -- a diplomatic crisis with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain over its support of extremism and terrorism. The crisis has isolated Qatar and cost it a so far two-month boycott and embargo.

Despite Qatar’s hugely contentious staging of the tournament, and its sponsoring of terrorist groups which are destabilising the Middle East, no suggestion has been made that it will lose its right to be the first country in the Middle East to host the World Cup.

But one has to admit: for a country so tiny, Qatar is involved in some very big messes.

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