Sunday, 4 March 2012

Paris is magic for Qatar - how the Middle East will alter European football

First it was Abu Dhabi. When, in September 2008, the Abu Dhabi United Group scooped up Manchester City, it sounded the rallying call for the Sky Blues. Pumped up by its new-found financial muscle, the club is beginning to lord it over its illustrious cross-town adversary United. After three-and-a-half years and an eyewatering outlay of almost £320 million, Ferguson's 'noisy neighbours' have demonstrated a bite as daunting as their bark. FA Cup champions, Premiership leaders - and, with the likes of Balotelli and David Silva only starting on the bench - a squad with the awesome depth to frighten any European rival. 
Now Qatar is gearing up to follow suit and upset football's balance of power. In May the Qatari Investment Authority, tasked with investing its government's oil and gas surpluses, bought a 70% stake in Ligue 1 team Paris Saint-Germain. What followed was a spending spree on a scale previously unknown to French football. In came Argentine star Javier Pastore for a record €40 million plus French internationals Kevin Gameiro, Jeremy Menez and Blaise Matuidi. Last year only Manchester City spent more. 
The big-name acquisitions are already paying dividends. PSG, Ligue 1's perennial under-performers, currently top the table. Pastore, once considered too slight and skinny for the physical French league, proved a revelation. Ex-Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti replaced the inexperienced Antoine Komboire, underlining the club's metamorphosis into a European heavy hitter. In the run-in to the league title, few commentators are now betting against the club snatching its first silverware since 1994. 
But PSG's transformation extends far beyond its rejuvenated squad. To the Qataris, the club is a sleeping giant with the potential to be a worldwide brand, hence their desperate and ultimately fruitless pursuit of David Beckham’s gilt-edged signature. His outrageous projected wage, double Pastore’s, reflected the global value of football’s most bankable icon, not for any on-field heroics he might produce, but to to give PSG the 'brand' a shot in the arm. Beckham in a PSG shirt would have given the club’s reputation and revenues a stratospheric boost, creating global headlines, not to mention an inevitable spike in t-shirt sales. 
But PSG's time will come.  
"Paris, it’s Paris, and I don’t think people realise that", says PSG sporting director Leonardo, and he's right. How can the world's most visited city not boast a football club to match its presence on the world stage? Think Madrid or London; great cities, footballing behemoths - and where's Paris on the list? 
In five years the picture will be different.  By next season, PSG should be playing in the Champion's League. Carlos Tevez looks a near-certainty to sign up, and the club is strongly tipped to abandon its existing stadium, the Parc des Princes for the 80,000-seat Stade de France, proof positive of the Qataris’ grandiose ambitions. Their expansive vision of PSG as a global player demands a grander stage than the 49,000-seater Parc des Princes and they believe that their growing band of superstars and exciting style of football could fill a far bigger stadium week in, week out. It is partly an accident of geography and a lack of major derby rivals. Unlike Madrid, London or Manchester, there is no red/blue divide, no split between fans, siphoning off potential support, no 'noisy neighbour'. The club is Paris' only properly competitive football team. On paper, it has unencumbered access to 8 million Parisians. As a Champions League team, PSG will  reach a new level and attract players who once scorned its lack of prestige. Like the stadia of top Premier League sides, PSG’s ground could become a bona fide tourist attraction. Legions of Koreans and Chinese making the pilgrimage to Old Trafford see their heroes in action - and PSG could do the same. For tourists and soccer fans, the chance to see world-class football played in Paris could prove irresistible. The 'city of love' - the world's greatest tourist trap - with the chance to see the likes of Messi, Rooney and Ronaldo in action - what's not to like? As the PSG motto proclaims, 'Paris is magic' - and Qatar's investment could turn out to be just that. 

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