Society

Messi In Paris: Qatar's Long Game With The Argentine Icon

The legendary soccer star of FC Barcelona has signed up with the Parisian club, owned by the Emirate since 2011...and just in time for the World Cup slated next year in Qatar.

Messi In Paris: Qatar's Long Game With The Argentine Icon

Paris Saint-Germain's Qatari President Nasser Al-Khelaifi and Argentinian football player Lionel Messi pose at a press conference

Rémi Dupré

PARIS — Despite his inexhaustible fortune, did Sheikh Tamin Al-Thani ever think he would be able to acquire such a player to add to his sporting showcase? Ten years after buying Paris-Saint-Germain (PSG), the Emir of Qatar can now see the Argentine prodigy Lionel Messi, the best footballer of (at least) this century, don the jersey of the French capital's club.

On Tuesday, after five days of negotiations, the longtime FC Barcelona star agreed to play for the team coached by his compatriot Mauricio Pochettino: he signed for two seasons, with an additional year as an option (for an annual salary of over 30 million euros, excluding bonuses).

The 34-year-old striker, who left Barcelona at the end of his contract for budgetary reasons, landed at Le Bourget airport to a standing ovation from several hundred supporters. During a theatrical farewell to the supporters of Barcelona (the 'socios blaugrana') on Sunday, he was initially inconsolable, but quickly dried his tears.

Ici, c'est Paris (This, is Paris) was written on his white T-shirt, chosen for the momentous arrival. The six-time Ballon d'Or winner made a detour to the Parc des Princes, the PSG stadium, to pose with his new jersey and then greet the Parisian fans, before settling in at the Royal Monceau Hotel for the official welcoming press conference.

Could the directors of the Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) fund have celebrated their decade at the head of PSG better than by recruiting the four-time Champions League winner and Barcelona's all-time top scorer (672 goals in 778 games)?

Calling it a "planetary event," the president of the Professional Football League (LFP), Vincent Labrune, emphasized that the deal was the "fruit of the strategy of the PSG management." In this case, the Argentine, who has only played with one club since his arrival at the Barcelona training center at the age of 13, becomes the new shiny object for the oil emirate on the chessboard of sports diplomacy.

PSG is building a brand. Soccer is secondary in all this.

The transaction crowns a decade of pharaonic investments made by Tamin Al-Thani to build a brand whose notoriety is supposed to consolidate the image of Qatar across the globe. "The stages of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (2012), David Beckham (2013), Neymar (2017) and now Messi have been essential and decisive in enabling the club to become a major global franchise," says Alain Cayzac, former president of PSG (2006-2008) under the American group Colony Capital, who has remained close to the Qataris. "We send a signal when we want this kind of player to come to Paris."

"PSG is building a brand, not a club," laughs a team insider, familiar with the storytelling built by QSI. "Soccer is secondary in all of this, it is a by-product."


Lionel Messi playing soccer while he was still a member of the Barcelona team — Mike Egerton/PA Wire via ZUMA Press

Messi is a whole different level from a marketing point of view, and the Emirates is going all-in to arrive in style at the World Cup, which will be held in Qatar in November and December 2022.

From a sporting point of view, Messi's recruitment is supposed to enable the club to win the Champions League before the World Cup. And to achieve this goal before Manchester City, the other new rich of the continent, owned by Sheikh Mansour of Adu Dhabi since 2008 and tormentor of PSG during the last European campaigns — defeat in the quarterfinals in 2016 and in the semis in May 2021.

The planets are aligned.

For the president of Olympique Lyonnais, Jean-Michel Aulas, "the planets are aligned": "QSI wanted to give itself the means to reach the top, politically and athletically, the year of the World Cup." And that competition is one that Lionel Messi dreams of finally winning with his national team.

Winning the French Ligue 1 title is a must now, after the recruitment of Messi and other stars at the end of their contracts, such as former Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos of Spain, AC Milan's Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and Liverpool's Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum.

In the midst of the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 and the end of the conflict surrounding the aborted Super League project, which pitted the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) against a number of secessionist clubs (Juventus Turin, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid) in April, the arrival of Messi in Paris illustrates the rise in power of PSG and its influential president, Nasser Al-Khelaïfi, on the continental scene.

"The investor States [Qatar, United Arab Emirates] have managed to take a form of power on the sporting and political levels," says Aulas. These last two terrible years have given them the means to take the strategy to the logical end."

As the embodiment of Barcelona for more than two decades, doesn't Messi risk denting his legend as loyal team player? "The club and its vision are perfectly in line with my ambitions," said the Argentine, who has never hidden his desire to leave Europe one day to finish his career in the United States.

"Messi, in Barcelona, is an almost authentic work. In Paris, he becomes a commodity," says another source familiar with the PSG's inner workings. He joins a club that is "més que un club" [more than a club, Barcelona's motto]." The showcase of a state, whose ambition, well beyond soccer, seems insatiable.

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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