PSG and Man City’s symbolic Champions League semi-final takes ‘sportswashing’ to next level

Miguel Delaney
·8-min read
PSG’s Marqinhos and Manchester City’s Fernandinho clash in a 2016 meeting between the clubs (Getty Images)
PSG’s Marqinhos and Manchester City’s Fernandinho clash in a 2016 meeting between the clubs (Getty Images)

At the height of last week’s tension in football, a genuine piece of international diplomacy was required.

The Times reported that Lord Udny-Lister, Boris Johnson’s special envoy to the Gulf, contacted the United Arab Emirates government to caution that Manchester City’s involvement in The Super League might damage the state’s relationship with the United Kingdom.

No such intervention was required between France and Qatar. Paris Saint-Germain’s owners had already turned the invitation down, although many feel political interests were even more important there.

The Qatari state has invested huge amounts into the very infrastructure of football, from the 2022 World Cup to BeIn Sport’s hefty deal as a Champions League broadcast partner. There was little benefit to Qatar in upending all of that.

That’s all before you get to the “toxic” reputation of The Super League, for two much-criticised governments using football to try and nurture benevolent images. You couldn’t have clearer illustrations of the way these two clubs are utilised by states, which is quite a set-up for a fixture of huge geopolitical dimensions.

The Super League isn’t the only time the two clubs have found themselves on either side of a contentious divide, after all. This third ever drawing of PSG and City marks their first match since the start and end of the 2017-20 Gulf blockade. City’s Abu Dhabi owners, as the major power within the UAE, rowed in behind their Saudi Arabian allies in an economic cold war against Qatar.

It was only when Joe Biden was elected in the United States that Mohamed Bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, realised the ground had shifted and a show of good will was required. The blockade was ended.

“Once the Saudis made that calculation, the others had to follow,” Dr Kristian Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at the Rice University in Houston, explains. “The Saudis would have wanted to reconcile more than some of the others – including Abu Dhabi.”

Far deeper political rivalries persist. It is why this fixture takes the whole “sportswashing” dimension onto a new level, if also perhaps a point of inevitability. There is similarly the fact that the football world is far more attuned to the use of these clubs than in 2016, when even the effects were less visible. Neither club was yet at the elite stage they are now. Neither prompted the same level of debate.

The potential for political propaganda with these fixtures is profound, and arguably carries a greater power given the end of the blockade has ended. The interest will go right to the very top.

“I suspect Tamim [bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar] will be watching,” says Bill Law, editor of Gulf Digest, who on Tuesday wrote an article describing this fixture as ‘more than a match’. “Lots of members of the Al Nayhan [from Abu Dhabi] will be watching quite closely. “It’s very interesting in terms of the wider context. Although it’s very clear the Saudis want to make up with Qatar, Mohamed bin Zayed [crown prince of Abu Dhabi] very much remains cool, for all sorts of reasons.”

Dr Ulrichsen agrees, comparing it to the 2019 Asian Cup meeting. “They’ll inevitably look at it through a geopolitical lens. Qatar also played UAE at the height of the blockade, and won 4-0. It was celebrated massively in Doha but, with the best will in the world, the Asian Cup is one thing.

“The Champions League is the place to be. Its global visibility is so much greater, especially because PSG and City have become such visible expressions of their investment into European football. Qatar beating UAE mattered hugely to issues related to the blockade but this is several orders of magnitude greater – just because of the visibility it would bring. We’ve had a dampening down of most of the rhetoric, so perhaps the football field is where you can express that, when the team you own and support wins.”

Nick McGeehan, who has long worked on human rights issues in the Gulf with Fair Square, believes it may even go to pettier levels. “The enmity between the two is still intense. There’s been a degree of rapprochement with the Saudis and the Qataris, but it’s Abu Dhabi that have driven so much of the gulf crisis. There’s still huge antipathy there. So they’ll be desperate to beat each other.

“That personal level is often overlooked. The rivalry is portrayed as between great political strategies of states, and there are very strong politics here, but these are deeply personal rivalries. It’s families, and individuals. MBZ hates the Qataris, and has done for a long time.”

“One of the things about these ruling families is that they are pretty thin-skinned,” Law adds.

For all the multi-level political strategising, such issues can often come down to sheer “one-upmanship”.

“It’s whose prize team is going to beat the other prize team,” McGeehan says. “In terms of one-upmanship, they’ll both want to win the European Cup before the other one. That is what they’re most interested in, who can get the ultimate prize first.”

That is what they’re playing for here, and it’s why the fixture is all the more timely. The very competition would have come under threat had it not been for the decisions of both clubs. Abu Dhabi “did not want it to become an international row”, to quote The Times, so City withdrew. PSG led the charge against The Super League, to the point club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is the new president of the European Club Association.

“It’s interesting,” McGeehan says. “A few weeks ago, for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, Qatar was everything that was wrong with modern football, then they suddenly had this opportunity to present themselves as saviours. They must have been delighted, on one level.”

It is why this fixture is timely, on another level. You couldn’t have a better reminder of remaining concerns in the game.

Far from saviours of football from The Super League, both of these ownerships are sources and reflections of the problems.

The game has really been in a self-perpetuating cycle. One of the reasons the Super League project went to the next level was because three decades of unfettered hypercapitalism had allowed a group of clubs to reach a financial size that meant they outgrew their leagues. It was that potential size – and the immense political capital involved – that attracted states to purchase clubs, and particularly those of historically lower profiles like City or PSG. This was what they could be made into.

That was something made more transparent to some supporters, too. While large sections of City fans have generally been hugely appreciative of the Abu Dhabi ownership, there was unprecedented anger at the Super League plan. The issue reminded that, for all the silverware any ownership can bring, the club is still at the whims of whatever the hierarchy plan to do. It just so happened it was this time to the benefit of Abu Dhabi’s intentions to bow out. Their intentions for football are still domination, as is the case with PSG.

That cycle has turned the game into a financial arms race, which even the legacy clubs struggled to keep up with. The Independent has frequently reported that one of the main motivations behind the Neymar signing was to “short squeeze” the transfer market, and inflate fees and wages to such a point that all but a handful of clubs would be able to keep up. There was an awareness that some would take themselves to the brink of financial ruin in trying to do so. This is precisely what has happened. Arresting this was one of the motivations behind The Super League, especially for clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona.

That ill-fated project may actually mark a last defeat, ahead of a new era in the Gulf takeover of football. It might well mark a new cycle, with this fixture an even more symbolic meeting.

“This could be one of those hinge moments in history, one of those turning points that only fully becomes apparent later down the line,” Dr Ulrichsen says. “The fact that The Super League was last week, and this week is this fixture, we might see April 2021 as when everything changed. It’s been over 10 years of investment and so far neither of them have actually won the Champions League, but I suspect this might be the year it changes, and maybe produces a period of sustained dominance.”

McGeehan believes it’s already here. “I look at the semi-final and just think, that’s it, they’re there, they’ve got it, everyone else is skint. Yes, they’ve got their rivalry to play out, but they’ve reached the top very quickly. The pandemic has hastened it, of course.”

But these two clubs are standing tallest, and strongest. The world will now be watching. So, just as importantly, will the key power brokers in both countries.

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