It is arguably the transfer story of the decade. Neymar Junior’s move to Paris Saint-Germain has intoxicated headline writers the world over, with the Brazilian joining the French club for the eye-watering sum of €222 million (£196m).
There has been plenty of discussion regarding the whys and wherefores of his decision to leave what seemed to be the perfect set up at the Camp Nou. The ‘Neymar narrative’ ranges from a desire to escape Lionel Messi’s shadow and thus be better positioned to win the Ballon D’Or, to securing a financially more lucrative contract, perhaps influenced by his father or his recent tax evasion charges in Brazil, despite being cleared of any wrongdoing last week.
For PSG, Neymar fits a gaping hole left by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, that of a superstar big name, a name who they hope can catapult them to Champions League success. These reasons, and more, have all played some part in leading the former Santos player to want to break away from one of the most devastating front-threes the game has ever seen, and set up the prospect of obliterating the transfer record.
Plainly, this is a transfer like no other. The sheer scale of the figures involved would make even the richest of oligarchs shudder. Indeed, it has the potential to make a mockery of Financial Fair Play. According to reports in Spain last week, the move is believed to have progressed with Neymar himself paying the buy-out clause in the contract, financially supported by Qatar Sports Investments, the state-sponsored company who own Paris Saint-Germain. They intend to make Neymar an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup, which would allow them to give the player the full sum of the buy-out clause. In this way, the French giants will not see the €222 million appear on their balance sheets, thus preemptively dodging the Fair Play bullet. The downside is that the transfer of funds will incur a tax thought to be around the €100 million mark.
The numbers are mind-blowing, and we haven’t yet mentioned his contract.
In normal circumstances, it would be neigh-on impossible for Les Parisiens to be able to afford to sign Neymar for such staggering sums. Arguments regarding the player’s marketability are limited, considering kit supplier contracts are set in stone; PSG are currently a midway through a nine-year £19 million deal with Nike. No matter how many shirts may be sold, that figure remains constant. The selling of other stars to compensate is not straightforward either, especially when trying to recoup a figure that, including contract demands and agent fees, would see the overall cost hit the capital club for around half a billion euros.
This, even spread over five years, would merit an outgoing payment of at least €80 million per season (including his reported contract). With Barcelona stipulating that the release clause must be paid in full, PSG would do well to escape repercussions if they were to bankroll the deal themselves. Of course, it is possible to escape the glare of FFP. But it is difficult, in this set of circumstances, to take the state actor of Qatar out of the equation.
Behind this transfer saga lies the inescapable reality that the most high-profile move of all time is being fuelled by geopolitics. This deal is signed, sealed and delivered in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar. The fundamental framework of the move could conceivably consist of the state of Qatar, through their Sports Investment arm, paying Neymar to leave Barcelona, in order to join the Qatar owned Paris Saint-Germain. It could be said that Neymar is not being signed by PSG. He is being signed by Qatar.
Without Qatar, this deal, on these terms, simply could not happen. So why would they invest so much money in a player who will not play for Qatar nor will he ever play, at least regularly, in Qatar? The answer brings in geopolitical tension in the Middle East, and Qatari foreign policy, regarding the use of soft power.
“Historically, Qatar has used soft power as one of the most important weapons in its arsenal,” Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics told Football News.
“Now more than ever, after four of Qatar’s neighbours have accused it of supporting terrorism, the small sheikdom feels determined to deploy its wealth to capture world headlines. The huge financial deal with the Brazilian striker Neymar could not have come at more an opportune moment. Besieged and on the defensive, Qatar flexes its soft power and tries to change the international narrative in its favour.”
Soft power is about setting the agenda of international relations through cultural and economic influence. The current diplomatic crisis in the Gulf, which escalated dramatically in June following sympathetic comments from the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, towards Iran, has seen Qatar blockaded by its neighbours, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain.
All four were previously seen as key allies. Qatar is accused of sponsoring terrorism by facilitating the transfer of funds to terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda. The crisis, at present, shows no sign of abating, and the demands made upon Qatar, which are wide ranging and extensive, remain an immovable requirement to end the siege. So far, Qatar has seen its imports drop by 40%.
Qatar is desperately seeking support to condemn the blockade and reduce the demands being made by the other Gulf nations. It is a tiny state, incapable of exhibiting hard power militarily due to its small population, which barely surpasses 2.5 million.
They thus turn to the most important aspect of their foreign policy, exhibiting soft power, which they are again flexing through the acquisition of Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain.
By signing the Brazilian striker, Qatar are able to ensure they remain, as Professor Gerges highlights, firmly in the public eye across the globe. Football is a truly global sport, and Qatar are able to draw attention to themselves by playing a high stakes game in the transfer market. This, in turn, draws attention to the Gulf crisis affecting them at home.
Without such investments, it is highly plausible that the majority of people would not have heard of Qatar, let alone place it on a map. By remaining explicitly in the public eye, it makes any assault on Qatar, sanctions or otherwise, headline news.
Football is not the only medium through which Qatar has used soft power. It has invested in numerous cultural projects the world over. If London is taken as a microcosm, it may surprise you to learn that Qataris own the Shard, the Olympic Village, Harrods, Chelsea Barracks and the Canary Wharf financial district. Such cultural investment again has its roots in soft power.
If something happens to Qatar, these culturally significant icons draw attention to their plight. Elsewhere, Qatar funds the international broadcaster Al-Jazeera, it built a base for the US military, Al Udeid, as well as investing heavily in Qatar Airways, ensuring millions of passengers worldwide travel through the state en route to destinations across the globe. All of this is a way in which the Qatari’s keep themselves firmly in the consciousness of the global population at large.
The Neymar transfer would not be the first time Qatar has used football as a tool of soft power either. Most prominent of all was its controversial success in securing the right to host the 2022 World Cup amid accusations of corruption. This was arguably its greatest propaganda coup, but it is not the only example.
The state sponsored ASPIRE football academy has its tentacles spread across the globe, plucking talent and bringing them to Qatar where they are developed using their world class training facilities. Many have taken issue with the academy, accusing the Gulf state of using it to take players from abroad and then encourage naturalisation, with the supposed aim being construct a stronger national side, an accusation they deny. Qatari investments have also appeared in Barcelona, as Qatar Airways became Barcelona’s first ever corporate sponsor in 2010, to the tune of £25 million per year. This is all before we mention the purchasing of Paris Saint-Germain, by Qatar Sports Investments.
State intervention in elite football clubs has become a more prominent feature of the game today. Qatar are not alone in taking this approach; Manchester City of course are owned by Sheikh Mansour, of the United Arab Emirates. They have taken their ‘City Football Group’ global, building a worldwide footballing empire with clubs in America, Australia, Japan and Uruguay. Fly Emirates is another branch of this investment tree, for they sponsor a number of high profile clubs, including AC Milan, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Benfica, as well as taking the name of both the FA Cup and Arsenal’s home ground.
Azerbaijan too have dabbled in improving their international recognition through football, sponsoring Atletico Madrid in recent seasons, whilst we have only begun to see the tip of the iceberg with regards to Chinese investment in football. This is all without mentioning the appearance of Russian oligarchs across the football spectrum, who invest in clubs to give themselves a very public profile, making any accusations against them, headline grabbing news.
But state sponsored clubs, like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, are not an entirely new phenomenon. The most obvious examples of states providing financial aid to a football club come from Spain. Seven clubs, including Real Madrid and Barcelona, were ordered to repay millions last year after it was deemed state support gave them an unfair advantage by the European Commission, with charges dating back to the 1990s. If we were to look longer term, it would not be unusual to see to see governments behind the iron curtain actively funding their local sides as propaganda, similar to the increased investment we are seeing today in China.
Neymar’s transfer has multiple threads that lead to why he has now decided the time is right to bid farewell to the Nou Camp and its all-star cast, and jump in at the deep end in Ligue 1. It is certainly plausible that Neymar may well be moving to the French capital purely for footballing reasons. He may indeed believe that by playing as the focal point of a strong PSG outfit, he can dethrone his soon-to-be former teammate Lionel Messi and take the accolade of being the world’s best player from his magic feet. Or perhaps he is being lured by the princely sums on offer, as well as the chance to escape the ‘rapacious’ Spanish tax authorities that have chased a number of high profile players in the country in recent months.
The reality is that all of these elements are at play. Yet his move, for all its footballing and financial merits, also reeks of geopolitics. Its odour is unmistakable, and its stench is meant to overpower the antagonisms surrounding the Gulf crisis that has seen Qatar blockaded by its neighbours.
The transfer is reflective of what is evidently a growing trend in the game at elite level; using football as medium through which to exhibit soft power. Its extensive reach and phenomenal support base makes it an accessible way to boost public profile, if you can afford it. The lust for success of supporters combined with the insatiable desire for heavy expenditure, in a climate where spending is as much a marker of ambition as what you do on the pitch, makes it easier for a rich investor to make himself a headline grabbing name. With Financial Fair Play potentially no barrier to unlimited state financed support, their appears to be no limit to what can be spent at the highest levels of the game
Neymar’s transfer is set to smash all records. Whether his move to PSG is a success in the long term we cannot yet say, perhaps it will all come down to Champions League success or attaining the Ballon D’Or.
But one thing we can say with greater certainty is that this transfer has more than just football and financial motivations to it. And if left unchecked, such interference will continue, leaving the beautiful game unashamedly the plaything of nation-states, firmly associated with what FIFA so adamantly opposes: political interference.