(This piece was originally published in the April 2013 issue of the Chimurenga Chronic)
A spectre is haunting European football – the spectre of Qatar. No holy alliance has emerged to respond to this rising power; indeed, it has been embraced by both established luminaries (Barcelona, Zidane) and by (hopeful) rising stars, such as the Paris Saint-Germain football club and now, in Belgium, Eupen. Qatar is already acknowledged by European football powers to be itself a power in their midst.
How did this come to pass? And what are the Qataris up to, anyway?
In some ways, the story all starts in Belgium, but then again, doesn’t it always? What is transpiring today in Europe was triggered by a professional footballer you would never have heard of were it not for a legal complaint he brought to the European Court in the 1990s. His name was Jean-Marc Bosman, and he played for RFG Liège. When, in 1990, they refused to transfer him to another club, he brought a complaint to the European Court of Trade, arguing that Fifa and professional club policies about player transfers constituted restraint of trade and went against EC policies. He won the case in 1995.
In the wake of the case, the regulations regarding player transfers were dismantled. But, perhaps more significantly, the case also struck down the right of European countries to maintain limits on the number of foreign players in clubs. Up until this time, professional teams throughout Europe had to include mostly players from within a given country, with quotas placed on the number of foreigners. Bosman changed that, helping to bring in a new era of mobility, coupled with vertiginous increases in salaries for European players.
One of the more far-reaching consequences of the Bosman ruling, however, was unintended: it created new openings for players from outside Europe to make their way into the professional system. Though the ruling applied only to European players, it essentially Europeanised the system of professional football, striking down any barriers that existed between national federations when it came to player transfers. That meant that if a player from Africa or Latin America came to play anywhere in Europe and was naturalised, they could then move freely to any other club.
In effect, Bosman did for professional football what the formation of the European Union did more broadly for immigration: it created new patterns of movement based on the fact that almost any door into Europe could potentially lead to any other country on the continent. As the scholar Rafaelle Poli has examined in a series of brilliant articles, European football involved a process through which certain professional gateways gave access to a broader set of options. Clubs in places like Switzerland and Belgium, with smaller budgets and much less professional prominence, would recruit promising players from academies in Africa and Latin America. If those players succeeded, the clubs could help them apply for naturalisation, at which point they became highly marketable commodities. If the club could, every once in a while, then transfer a particularly promising player to another club, say in the English Premier League, they could make a windfall that would support their operations. The advent of European integration in professional football helped to open the way for more and more players from outside Europe.
These changes, of course, were part of a larger set of structural shifts that reconfigured how global football worked. The rise of cable television and the privatisation of media in western Europe created massive new revenue flows for clubs. The increasing visibility of European professional football in global media, coupled with the similar presence of players from throughout the world in clubs on the continent, made the clubs powerful brands that attracted new investors.
This entire landscape has now become so naturalised that it is easy to forget that it is also relatively recent; that there was a time, not so long ago, when many clubs in western Europe were owned and governed by public-private partnerships and when player salaries were relatively contained. Today, many global investors with capital to spend cannot resist the siren song of professional football. Though in many ways investing in the famously fickle realm of sports teams is economically irrational (it’s probably better to invest in technology stocks, or even hedge funds, if you are intent on making money), it offers a mix of status and symbolic capital that is seemingly irresistible.
Qatari investment in European football is only one part of a global process that has drawn capital from the US and Russia, and has helped to encourage local investment in Chinese football, signing the likes of Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka to lucrative contracts. One of the more high-profile and remarked-upon investments has been the acquisition of Manchester City by Mansour Bin Zayed, a member of the ruling family in the United Arab Emirates, and its stunningly rapid transformation to the top of the Premier League. Yes, it turns out you can buy that prize by spending nearly £500 million on players.
Zayed’s was a shrewd investment partly because it tapped a loyal local fan base and an increasingly global loathing of rivals, Manchester United, thus managing to produce simultaneously and rapidly a glorious spectacle of capital and footballing triumph. The US media has now capitalised on this as well, making the Manchester derby into a highly promoted television spectacle packaged for a growing audience in North America.
In the summer of 2012, Qatari investors followed suit, buying a stake in another club with untapped potential, Paris Saint-Germain. Long dogged by the reputation of violent, often far-right fans, the club and its new investors are now going to make a play for French dominance and European prominence. They might never get the majority of Parisians to care, but if they can cultivate a new global brand, and offer a fresh narrative in an increasingly saturated market of European clubs, it might not matter.
Middle Eastern investment in European football has, at times, incited open or thinly veiled xenophobic commentary. But there’s no particular reason to conclude that this form of investment is any more or less worrisome than the capital coming from other quarters. What is striking, however, is the interesting ways in which the Qataris in particular have combined multiple forms of investment, capitalising on philanthropy, government action and private investment in a visible and effective bid to shape the contours of professional football in Europe.
Qatari investors have been gaining a stake in European football slowly, over some time. For many, their presence popped into consciousness when one of their country’s institutions showed up on the jerseys of Barcelona FC. The team has long prided itself on keeping sponsors names off their jerseys. In 2005, they began carrying the Unicef logo on their shirts, but paid for the privilege. Then, in 2010, they broke with tradition and made a deal: in exchange for branding their jerseys with the name of the Qatar Foundation, the club received a cool $125 million.
‘What’s the Qatar Foundation?’ you might ask. It is, according to its website, ‘an independent, private, non-profit, chartered organization founded in 1995 by decree of His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Amir of the State of Qatar, to support centres of excellence that develop people’s abilities through investments in human capital, innovative technology, state of the art facilities and partnerships with elite organisations, thus raising the competency of people and the quality of life.’ The shorter version is captured in the slogan: ‘Unlocking human potential.’ And what better standard bearer for that than Lionel Messi?
This investment in European professional football laid the ground-work for the government of Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, the first to take place in the Middle East. They hired Zidane as one of the spokesmen for the bid and he produced an endorsement video in which he speaks, from the Marseille banlieu in which he grew up, about his childhood and ends by declaring ‘Football belongs to everyone.’
We can look forward now to a decade of ongoing grousing about whose petro-dollars won the World Cup, how hot it will be and, more seriously, debates about how Qatari laws on homosexuality and women’s rights will shape the experience of the cup for foreign fans. But whatever its merits, the decision clearly highlights the shifting power relations within global football, as does Fifa’s recent overturning of the ban on the hijab in women’s football as a result of pressure from Jordan and Iran.
Another significant investment on the part of Qatar, however, has largely gone under the radar: the purchasing of second division Belgian Eupen in June 2012 as an extension of the Aspire Academy. The latter institution, based in Qatar and part of the Aspire Zone Foundation, offers scholarships to promising young footballers from Africa, Latin America and Asia. The idea, until now, has been to help them find their way into European clubs. With the purchase of Eupen, however, the goal is to cut out the middle man. The club will serve as an extension of the Aspire Academy, a place where its trainees will be placed on the field as professionals, ideally as the first step in their careers. The combination of philanthropy and investment is a brilliant one, for it positions the Aspire Academy at the centre of the happy discourse of global football as global opportunity, while also providing an opportunity for major profits from subsequent transfer fees for players.
For Belgian club football, this is an important and probably positive development. The leagues in the country have long laboured in the shadows of those much more prominent in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Though the Belgian national team has, for such a small country, a rather illustrious record of qualifying and at times performing reasonably well in World Cups, in recent years they have fallen behind, failing to get to the 2006 and 2010 tournaments. Now a new crop of players who came up in the Belgian club system, including Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany, have emerged as some of the more exciting talents in world football. They may well lead the Belgian team – one that boasts a much greater diversity of players than the national teams of a bygone era – to new victories in the coming years.
An infusion of talent recruited through Qatar into Belgium’s clubs can only help improve the country’s leagues. The combination of foreign capital and foreign players has stirred up, and will undoubtedly continue to do so, grousing about the end of European civilisation among members of the far-right in Belgium. But it is a fair bet that such sniping will be overtaken by the economic interests of both foreign and local investors. In the longer-term, all of this is likely to benefit Belgium’s international competitiveness as well.
An alliance between Belgium and Qatar, in pursuit of a place on the world’s greatest stage? That is where we are in today’s global football: a land of beautiful, stunning, contradiction.