x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Queuing up for patronage

Football clubs across Europe are finding themselves increasingly dependent on the money flowing from various enterprises in the Gulf states.

Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City won the English FA Cup this year.
Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City won the English FA Cup this year.

Quite a crowd gathered at Barcelona's Camp Nou on Monday to welcome the European champions' first major signing of the close-season.

And when Alexis Sanchez, the attacking midfielder, pulled on his new jersey, he became the first Barca signing to wear a shirt bearing the name of a commercial sponsor: the Qatar Foundation.

Middle East money is shaping more and more powerfully the dynamics of European club football. Barcelona had never carried a commercial sponsor's name on their jerseys, but the €30 million (Dh 157.4m) a year they will receive from the Qatar Foundation over the next five years will go a long way toward paying for their acquisition of Sanchez, who was signed from Italian club Udinese for a fee that could rise to €40m.

It is not an entirely new trend - the Egyptian businessman, Mohammed Al Fayed, bought Fulham in 1997 and financed their rise to the English Premier League - but it has gathered steam in recent years.

The most staggering deal came in 2008 when the Abu Dhabi United Group bought Manchester City and launched a spending spree that resulted in the club finishing third in the league last season and qualifying for the Champions League. Emirates Airline purchased the naming rights to Arsenal's London stadium, and just yesterday the airline announced a five-year sponsorship deal with Real Madrid.

There's more Middle East investment in Spain: The Dubai-based Royal Emirates Group has taken control of Getafe; the head of a Bahrain-based company has bought Racing Santander; and Malaga was bought by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family.

The benefits for the clubs are readily apparent in their payrolls. Next week, another significant presentation of a new signing will take place, when the Spanish international midfielder, Santi Cazorla, grins for the cameras in his new Malaga strip.

The club will have smashed their record outlay on a single player for the second time in a month: Cazorla cost close to €20m from Villarreal; the France international, Jeremy Toulalan, set the previous benchmark at €10m when he arrived from Lyon.

Malaga's money comes largely from Qatar now, and for the second transfer window running, they may well end up outspending every other Spanish club.

Their chief rivals at the moment as the club with the highest-net outlay on new players - buys set against sales income - look like being either Manchester City or Paris Saint Germain (PSG), who barely two months after the Qatar Investment Authority took a 70 per cent stake in the club, have dominated the French transfer market. PSG have made the striker, Kevin Gameiro, at €12m from Lorient, the biggest single piece of business within Ligue 1 this summer.

Malaga have become accustomed to comparisons with City, to the extent that some of the many English residents around the Costa del Sol christened them "Malaga City" as soon as Sheikh Abdullah bought the club in June last year.

Like the Abu Dhabi United Group, who had invested in Manchester City two years earlier, Malaga's Qatari owner launched the new project with an ambitious manifesto. Malaga had the potential, he reasoned, to challenge for a regular spot in the top three of the Spanish league.

The figureheads behind the takeovers of Malaga and PSG tend to be discreet, to delegate the work of public appearances and day-to-day running of their clubs. But the intention to raise the global profile of their nation through the world's most popular sport is anything but.

The successful campaign by Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup made a big noise last December, and continues to do so, albeit sometimes because of controversies around voting and the bid's architect, Mohamed bin Hammam, since banned by Fifa.

But in the background to raising Qatar's status as a football nation, ties between the country and various European clubs had already been eagerly developed.

The Qatar-based Aljazeera broadcaster has just added the rights to France's Ligue 1 matches to a portfolio of international broadcast deals that already includes the Spanish Primera Liga, Italy's Serie A and the Uefa Champions League.

Individual clubs, from Belgium to Spain, have tie-ups with Doha's state-of-the-art Aspire academy, which has an international intake of young athletes and where there is an ambition that young footballers who qualify to represent Qatar will find contracts in European club football, the elite professional end of the sport, over the next decade.

Clubs, in turn, are eager to go into stakeholder partnership with a country of huge material wealth.

According to Luc Dayan, who has sat on the boards of four French clubs, "anybody who is interested in selling a club gets themselves to Doha, the Qatar capital, or sends their proposals there. The Qatari royals are constantly being courted."

Malaga's Sheikh Abdullah, on taking over the Spanish club for a relatively modest €36m - as well as assuming their debts - revealed he had earlier been in talks with Liverpool, where an alliance of American investors were until last year seeking a buyer.

Malaga were a struggling project when he took over. His initial investment in new players failed to change that outlook, and by the end of 2010 a new head coach, Manuel Pellegrini, formerly of Real Madrid, had been appointed to stave off relegation.

In the winter transfer window, experienced, high-earning players like the Argentine, Martin Demichelis, from Bayern Munich, and Brazil's Julio Baptista, from Roma, arrived.

Malaga broke free of the drop-zone and for the new season, Pellegrini will have at least €60m of new talent in his starting line-up. At centre forward will be one of the most prolific strikers of the last decade, Ruud van Nistelrooy, hired after his contract with Hamburg expired, being supplied with passes by the Spanish internationals Joaquin - signed from Valencia - and Cazorla.

PSG, who finished fourth in the French league last season, have appointed Leonardo, the former AC Milan and Inter Milan head coach, to the task of designing a squad to win the domestic title.

Word already is of occasional tensions between the Brazilian and some of his new Qatari bosses over potential targets - Adel Taarabt, the Moroccan international of Queens Park Rangers, was said to have been a boardroom preference though not favoured by Leonardo - but there is no doubt the budget for players is larger than the club have ever known.

The France international, Jeremy Menez, signed from Roma, will play up front with Gameiro, and, according to reports in Italy, the club are ready to match Palermo's hefty €45m valuation of the Argentine playmaker, Javier Pastore.

"We are not going sign 10 Lionel Messis, because you don't build a team like that," said Leonardo on his appointment, "but we do have a dream.

"Paris is the only major capital without a team at the top level of European football. We have a responsibility to give it something other than the Eiffel Tower as a symbol."