The global politics of the biggest story in soccer – Washington Post

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Humor us today with a discussion of football — or soccer, as my editors at The Washington Post oblige me to call it. Last week, French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain splashed out almost $264 million to prise Brazilian sensation Neymar Da Silva Santos Jr. away from Spanish giants FC Barcelona, thus completing the most expensive player acquisition in the history of sports. That fee doesn’t include any salary, bonuses or other costs, all of which could reportedly drive up the price of the deal to somewhere around $600 million.

The figures are staggering, another sign of the almost ludicrous wealth swishing around the higher echelons of the global game. Just last summer, Manchester United paid Italian club Juventus a $124 million fee for French midfielder Paul Pogba, a world record at the time. Now PSG has doubled that figure in the space of a year.

It’s an eye-catching sum in almost any context, but the particulars of the deal make it especially interesting. PSG was taken over in 2011 by Qatar Sports Investments, a state-owned Qatari company. Bankrolled by Qatar’s vast petro-wealth, the club went about building one of the expensively assembled teams in Europe — a continent whose top clubs attract millions of supporters worldwide and generate lucrative global television deals. For PSG and its owners, Neymar is supposed to be the missing puzzle piece that will finally win them the Champions League, Europe’s top competition.

But the impact of the move is hardly restricted to the sporting world. In the past two months, Qatar has been in the grip of a diplomatic and economic boycott imposed on Doha by four Arab nations. The “blockading” states consider Qatar a destabilizing actor, deploying its largess to fund extremist groups and a subversive television network in Al Jazeera. The Qataris counter that their adversaries, chiefly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, want to strip Doha of its sovereignty and are masking petty rivalries with trumped-up charges.

Amid the political tumult, Qatar’s controversial hosting of the 2022 World Cup has come under scrutiny and threat — allegations of bribery in winning the hosting rights and abuse in building the necessary stadiums have swirled for years. The crisis is unlikely to end any time soon, leading some analysts to wonder whether the Qataris will have the resources or capacity to continue with their already ambitious building plans.

In this context, PSG’s purchase of Neymar is a demonstration of Qatar’s confidence and wealth. 

“They are trying to literally score a point here,” Christopher Davidson, who teaches Middle East politics at Durham University in northeast England, told the Associated Press. “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 available and they have some liquidity to still be taken seriously.”

“Qatar has not capitulated, it is fighting back — and the Neymar signing is part of that,” Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford in Britain, told Bloomberg News. “It’s a charm offensive, a soft power stance — there’s something of international diplomacy in all of this. The last thing Saudi Arabia wants is people all over the world talking about Qatar” and its lucrative sporting ventures.

Officials in Paris, indeed, took notice. “We see very well that Qatar is involved in a communications operation, we see how Qatar wants to be a player, via sporting events, sporting presence, to be seen on the diplomatic stage,” said Christophe Castaner, a member of the National Assembly and a spokesman for the French government. He insisted that Neymar’s arrival in the capital wasn’t going to influence the government’s position vis-à-vis the diplomatic crisis (perhaps because President Emmanuel Macron is a noted fan of PSG’s domestic rivals, Olympique Marseille).

“France favors pursuing dialogue because today there are extremely high tensions and it’s not healthy for them to continue,” Castaner said.

Beyond the jockeying in the Persian Gulf region, Neymar’s move has sparked consternation about the obscene amount of money involved. Within the sport, coaches and officials have warned about the potential unfairness of a state’s sovereign wealth being used to fuel one team. Attempts to impose “financial fair play” rules seem to be routinely ignored or skirted into impotence. “Once a country owns a club, everything is possible,” lamented Arsene Wenger, the French manager of Arsenal, a London club whose fortunes have waned as rivals owned by a Russian oligarch and Abu Dhabi sheikhs, respectively, came to the fore.

But such is the universal and wildly lucrative popularity of soccer that the Neymar episode may just be a reflection of the new normal rather than an unseemly, lavish excess.

Neymar, a sparkling, quicksilver waif of a striker who at times looks more like the protagonist of an anime series than an athlete, has been surrounded from an early age by agents and PR experts who carefully groomed and guided his career. The player himself can, bizarrely and yet justifiably, argue that he didn’t leave Barcelona for the money but rather a new challenge and the opportunity to emerge from the shadow of his former team’s megastar, Lionel Messi.

It’s a beguiling story that, despite the ostentatious saga of his transfer, may well win him more attention and potential admirers. For superstars at his level, not unlike rich Arab states, soft power matters.

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