Why is Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain project failing?

Questions are being asked about the viability of Doha’s soft power project centred on football.
Wednesday 07/03/2018
Paris Saint-Germain’s Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani reacts after losing the UEFA Champions League Round of 16-second leg football match between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid on March 6, in Paris. (AFP)
Grim stats. Paris Saint-Germain’s Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani reacts after losing the UEFA Champions League Round of 16-second leg football match between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid on March 6, in Paris. (AFP)

LONDON - With the Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) football club out of Europe’s Champions League competition following a 5-2 (aggregate) loss to Real Madrid, questions are being asked about the viability of Doha’s soft power project centred on football.

PSG, the perennial French champion, was taken over by Qatar Sports Investment, a portfolio of sports properties controlled by the Qatari government, in 2011. Since then, club President Nasser al-Khelaifi has spent more than $1.2 billion to obtain new players, part of an ambitious project to secure Champions League glory.

As with Doha’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup, the aim was to demonstrate Qatari soft power. With PSG no closer to winning the Champions League and Qatar 2022 the subject of controversy and corruption allegations, there is speculation that Qatar’s soft power plans have backfired.

Last summer, PSG shattered the world transfer record by spending about $273 million to secure the services of Brazilian forward Neymar. The French champions also brought in exciting French forward Kylian Mbappe for a fee that will eventually rise to $223.5 million.

Neymar’s transfer took place at the height of the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours, with many viewing the Brazilian star’s acquisition as a public relations coup.

“They [the Qataris] are trying to literally score a point here,” Christopher Davidson, who teaches Middle East politics at England’s Durham University, told Bloomberg News at the time.

“It sounds like a lot of money but, given the stakes are hundreds of billions of dollars because of the World Cup, Neymar will be seen as a sound investment by Qatar. It proves they have the funds availability and they have liquidity to still be taken seriously.”

Despite the acquisition of Neymar and Mbappe, it seems that PSG is no closer to Champions League glory than before. After PSG’s quarterfinal defeat in 2013 to Barcelona, Khelaifi said the club’s objective was to win the Champions League “in the next five years.”

That deadline has expired.

Khelaifi struck a more cautious note after the team was eliminated by Real Madrid, saying PSG’s “project” was a work in progress.

“We believe in our players. We want to continue the project, with the two of them [Neymar and Mbappe] because they are the future of the club,” Khelaifi said. “Winning the Champions League is a slow process; you can’t do it overnight. We’re on the right track.”

However, the statistics make grim reading. Since it was bought by Qatar, PSG has failed to make it beyond the last eight in Europe. Over the past seven years, PSG has only managed to beat three teams — Bayer Leverkusen, Chelsea and Valencia — in the Champions League knockout stage.

The investment strategy that has been championed by Khelaifi, who is also chairman of Qatar’s beIN Sports network, is simply not working. PSG might have won France’s Ligue 1 four times over the past seven years — and is on course for another title this year — but success in France’s top league does not guarantee success in overall European competitions.

“Their recruitment strategy does not appear to be based on buying building blocks to make a successful team. Rather, it is about headline-making signings. It was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria before Neymar and Mbappe joined the party last summer,” said ESPN senior football writer Mark Ogden in a blog.

Ogden compared Qatar’s lack of European success with PSG with Manchester City’s, which is owned by the UAE’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan. While the Emirati “project” at Manchester City has been quieter, it has resulted in a lot more success.

“When you compare the two clubs now, it is clear that one (City) has benefited from a strategic, long-term approach, while the other (PSG) is, for want of a better phrase, throwing money at the problem and hoping that it works,” Ogden said.

While both clubs have spent similar amounts in total, Manchester City has pursued a much more strategic investment policy, rather than simply seeking to sign the biggest names.

City’s record signing is defender Aymeric Laporte for $80 million. The club’s pursuit of manager Pep Guardiola was about securing a coach with “vision” who could implement a long-term identity at the club.

Since coming under Emirati ownership, Manchester City has won the Premier League twice and is on course for a third championship this year. They are also likely to make it to the Champions League quarterfinals following a 4-0 away win against FC Basel.

It seems likely that PSG coach Unai Emery, who is out of contract this summer, will not be with the club next year. As for whether the next coach will have better luck in the Champions League, it seems unlikely as long as PSG favours headline-grabbing transfers over strategic team building.