With a total land area of 11,437 km2, Qatar is merely 0.1% the size of Europe. I know, I know… comparing an Arab Emirate to a whole continent may be stretching things, but it is (sort of) relevant to this article, as the tiny Gulf nation is rapidly gaining representation in some of Europe’s biggest football leagues.
Let’s begin with Manchester City, the one that started it all. The Sky Blues are perhaps the most popular example of Qatari investment in football, having been bought over by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008. Since then, approximately £300 million has been spent on new players. It seems their investment has started to pay off, with an FA Cup victory last season adding to a third-place finish in the English Premier League, allowing them to mingle with Europe’s top clubs (including defending champions Barcelona) in the UEFA Champions League this season.
Speaking of the Catalans, The Qatar Foundation became the first official shirt sponsor of FC Barcelona during the summer. For €170 million, the Qataris will have their name on arguably the most recognisable jersey in world football for five years, angering purists who accuse the club of “selling out”, but relieving club officials, as the sponsorship helped alleviate Barça’s huge debt problems.
Still in Spain, Málaga CF are gearing up for their second season under Qatari ownership, having been bought by Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser al-Thani for €36 million in 2010. His plans for Los Boquerones didn’t quite come to fruition, as the club languished in La Liga’s relegation zone last season, before a change of manager took them to a creditable 11th place.
Meanwhile in France, capital club Paris St. Germain (PSG) have become the latest plaything of Qatar Sports Investment (QSI), which has purchased the club for €50 million. Ever a sleeping giant (the club has won two Ligue 1 titles and the French Cup eight times), the club finished 4th in the league last season, and were runners-up in the French Cup.
Manchester City 2.0?
Naturally, these two clubs have had to deal with comparisons with Qatar’s first big investment in club football, being dubbed the “Manchester City of La Liga/Ligue 1”. As expected, both Málaga and PSG have splashed the cash during the off-season on some big names to strengthen their sides. Their wealthy owners have also promised new stadia and training centres to provide them with top-notch facilities.
However, that’s where the similarities end. Although City have signed many gems – most notably club captain Vincent Kompany, playmaker David Silva, and the prolific Sergio Aguero – the player-acquisition process has been rather… rushed and impulsive, almost like giving a child RM1,000 and letting him loose in Toys ‘R Us. Players were enticed with massive wage packets, and signings were made seemingly without much thought for club chemistry. They’ve made it a priority to sign a marquee player every summer (names bandied about in the past included Kaka and Dani Alves), while stockpiling some of the best talent in the Premier League. Wayne Bridge? Craig Bellamy? Roque Santa Cruz? City turned into a place where good squad players went to rot. Known hot-headed personalities like Mario Balotelli and Emannuel Adebayor also turned the dressing room upside down.
Like City, Malaga play in sky blue kits. As La Liga’s nouveau riche, there has been an influx of new players during the summer months, but their acquisitions (and spending) have been more reserved and calculated. Spain winger Santi Cazorla has been their biggest signing to date, arriving from Villareal for €21 million. He has already started repaying his transfer fee, scoring three goals and one assist in just two games for the club! Joaquin, another former Spanish international from Valencia, has also done well, with two goals in as many games. French international Jeremy Toulalan, Dutch center-back Joris Mathijsen, Spanish defender Nacho Monreal, and Dutch scoring legend Ruud van Nistelrooy (who has been top scorer in the Spanish, English, and Dutch leagues) all joined, with the club spending €10 million or less per player.
As you can see, Malaga have not taken the “City path” by signing big names or by making huge statements of intent. Their policy seems to point towards a calculated strategy to build the club gradually, instead of “running before you can walk”. As van Nistelrooy said in an interview, “There’s a trend of clubs being taken over and spending crazy amounts but this is different. There has been a lot of money spent but Málaga are building in a very serious way. This project comes with care and vision.”
Similarly, PSG have also spent wisely during the transfer window. Aside from replacing the departed Ludovic Giuly and retired Claude Makelele with Jeremy Menez and Blaise Matuidi, Le Parisiens have also spruced up the rest of their team, with Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu joining new defenders Milan Bisevac and Diego Lugano (who captained Uruguay to the Copa America title earlier this year), as well as Kevin Gameiro, who was the second-highest scorer in Ligue 1 last season.
Like Malaga’s acquisitions, these players arrived for a transfer fee of €10 million or less. However, PSG seem to have taken a leaf out of Manchester City’s book, spending a massive €39.8 million on their ace in the pack, Javier Pastore. The Argentine playmaker has been touted as one of European football’s brightest young talents, having been voted Serie A’s Young Footballer of the Year in 2010 while playing for Palermo. Theoretically, new signings need a “bedding-in period” while they gel and get to know their teammates and manager, even more so when half the first team are new players, but PSG’s forwards have come out firing, with Gameiro scoring four goals in seven games so far, while Menez secured four assists and three goals during the same period.
Admittedly, Manchester City have since reined in their rash expenditure, and their recent signings have signalled their intent of playing fluid possession football. Aguero, Yaya Toure, and David Silva are players with great technical ability, having played for some of the biggest teams in La Liga; while the Sky Blues have also poached several members of an Arsenal team known for playing the most beautiful football in the Premier League, with Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri joining Kolo Toure at the club. The football they’ve played so far in the Premier League this season has been scintillating, as they currently sit second in fledgling league table, two points behind city rivals Manchester United, having scored seventeen goals in just five games!
Despite having much in common with City, I can’t help but think that Malaga and PSG are Manchester City 2.0, the new, improved version. Almost as if their Qatari owners swapped stories and learned from the Abu Dhabi United Group’s previous mistakes. The new owners have taken a more reserved, patient approach to building their two teams, and only time will tell if they will succeed.
Clubs owned by wealthy foreigners have often been subjected to jibes by fans of other teams, who call it “financial doping”. Nevertheless, the Qataris’ investment turn modest or underachieving clubs into forces to be reckoned with. Sometimes, a little competition is needed to keep the big boys on their toes.
Darren Goon wishes a wealthy foreign tycoon would swoop in and save his local club, Penang. We may not have the Champs-Elysees or the Eiffel Tower, but we do have amazing assam laksa.