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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

German giant Bayern Munich ‘ignored’ rights abuses before Qatar deal

Leading German football team take to the pitch in the Champions League with its charismatic chairman dogged by accusations he ignored advice on workers’ rights to seal Qatar sponsorship

Bayern Munich players prepare for the second leg of the UEFA Champions League quarter final against Sevilla in Munich.  EPA/LUKAS BARTH
Bayern Munich players prepare for the second leg of the UEFA Champions League quarter final against Sevilla in Munich. EPA/LUKAS BARTH

German football champions Bayern Munich ignored concerns about abusive labour conditions in Qatar before signing a lucrative sponsorship deal with the Gulf state’s national carrier, campaigners claimed Wednesday.

Germany’s most successful team has struck a series of sponsorship deals with Doha’s international airport and Qatar Airways since 2016 despite repeated criticisms of the Gulf nation’s treatment of migrant construction workers.

The club sought advice from the German government in late 2016 as it embarked on negotiations with Qatar Airways Group because of the potential controversy surrounding any deal, according to Norwegian news website Josimar.

Angela Merkel’s government asked researchers from Human Rights Watch (HRW) to look into the implications. The group wrote in a memo that any agreement “poses a serious risk to the club’s reputation,” according to a memo seen by Josimar and confirmed by sources.

“Any agreement that involves the use of Bayern Munich’s brand and global reach to either directly or indirectly promote the image of Qatar will inevitably lead to accusations … that it is involved in an exercise in reputation laundering,” the memo said.

The memo, reportedly passed to the club via Mrs Merkel’s office, said that the club should express its support for labour reforms and changes to the foreign workers visa system. It included a suggested statement if the club wanted to press ahead with the deal.

The group said its advice was ignored and the club’s director Karl-Heinz Rummenigge attracted the scorn of the team’s fans after claiming in January that conditions for workers had improved “thanks to football”.

Qatar Airways replaced German airline Lufthansa as one of the club’s sponsors in February, signing a five-year deal, to expand its commercial commitments to the club. The airline also took over the deal to sponsor the shirt sleeves of players from Doha’s Hamad International Airport.

The deals were controversial as the club has a strategy of working with other major German brands – such as Adidas and Audi – to promote the club and the nation’s industries. Lufthansa had been the club’s ‘official carrier’ since 2004.

The announcement of the new sponsorship agreement came after the German head of HRW, Wenzel Michalski, said that the club had failed to live up to its obligations.

“Bayern is a company with statutes and values, and their silence on the issue contradicts the values the club claims to champion,” he told Deutsche Welle.

Mr Michalski said there must have been a “misunderstanding” after Mr Rummenigge claimed that he was told by Germany’s former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel that workers’ conditions had improved because of football.

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Bayern Munich did not respond to requests for comment but told Josimar that workers’ rights in Qatar had improved. It said that the Gulf state was already a major investor in German companies including Siemens and Volkswagen.

The club said at the time of the 2016 agreement, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the former foreign minister, “described the deal as a regular business partnership between German and Qatari companies.”

The commercial agreements are part of an increasingly close relationship between the club and Qatar.

Bayern holds an annual winter training camp in Qatar and German media have speculated that the team’s veteran star Franck Ribery could see out his career with a lucrative final contract in the Gulf state from next year.

The sponsorship of the Germany side follows the state’s coup in securing the right to host the 2022 World Cup after a controversial process and accusations of graft and influence peddling.

Qatari money has also seen Paris Saint-Germain become one of the wealthiest clubs in the world with a sufficiently large transfer pot to be able to snatch Brazilian striker Neymar from Spanish giants Barcelona.