The Qatari-owned French football club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) faces a tough examination evening when they take on Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City in the Champions League quarter finals first-leg in Paris.
While fans will be glued to their TV sets, a former global football superstar may well be watching with interest from the French club’s hospitality box.
PSG have long held a candle for the one-time England player David Beckham. “He wants to be involved with the Paris Saint-Germain project and we would love to have him involved in the project, for sure,” said the club chairman and chief executive Nasser Al Khelaifi a couple of years ago, when asked about Beckham’s retirement after winning the Ligue 1 title with PSG.
So recent reports of Beckham’s Major League Soccer (MLS) Miami football club franchise, Miami Beckham United (MBU), holding investment talks with PSG should not raise eyebrows, according to Nabil Ennasri, the director of L’observatoire du Qatar – a centre specialising in Qatar and its foreign policies.
“I don’t think that this is a surprise because you need to know what motivates the sports diplomacy of the Qatar authorities,” he tells The National.
“Sport is a strategic priority for the leaders as it provides strong international exposure. In the age of soft power and influential diplomacy, [football] has a matchless reputation.
“Qatar is working hard to … fit in today’s global culture, which is evident as the nation has invested heavily since the late 1990s,” says Mr Ennasri.
Jonathan Johnson, a freelance journalist specialising in French football, points out that media rumours that the pair are negotiating may be premature.
“Reports suggest Beckham and QSI [Qatar Sports Investments, PSG’s owners] are in talks, but … as far as I know, PSG and Beckham are a long way off having a partnership.”
However, he concedes that the possibility is a realistic one. “Does QSI’s interest in Beckham’s Miami venture come as a surprise? Not really.
“Although QSI might decide to invest in other projects like Beckham’s, I still think that PSG will be their top priority. Especially when you consider how close to success in Europe they are now. ” PSG are 25 points ahead of nearest contender Monaco in this year’s Ligue 1 title race and beating City over two legs in the Champions League quarters would give them a place semi-finals at least.
But Beckham is increasingly becoming a big name in US football. In 2014, he exercised his option of owning a Miami-based MLS franchise along with his partners in the venture, Simon Fuller, Tim Leiweke and Marcelo Claure, a Bolivian businessman, creating MBU for a fee of $20m – a significant discount on the $100m paid by each of the owners of the recently formed franchises in Portland, Montreal, Vancouver and Orlando.
The Beckham-led group looking to bring an MLS team to Miami said late last month it had purchased most of the private land needed to build a stadium.
They paid almost US$19 million for about six acres, The Miami Herald reported on March 25, which represents about two-thirds of the nine-acre site where the group wants to build a 25,000-seat stadium. The remaining land necessary for the privately financed project would come from Miami-Dade County, which is negotiating a sale, the paper said. The group had outlined its plans to build a stadium, an MLS requirement, in the Overtown neighbourhood of Miami, just east of Marlins Park, in December.
“David, Simon, Tim and I have never been closer to realising our dream of fielding a soccer club that makes Miami proud,” Mr Claure, who is also the chief executive of Sprint, a US telecoms company, tells The National.
“We have the right site, the right ownership group and a loyal base of fans counting down the days until our first match. We’re all-in on Overtown, and we couldn’t be more excited about moving forward with plans to deliver the most responsible stadium in Miami history.”
It was Beckham’s fourth attempt at purchasing a site for his MLS expansion team. MBU had previously targeted sites at PortMiami and next to AmericanAirlines Arena. Another attempt near Marlins Park was hampered by private land MBU would have needed to acquire.
The group has said construction of the stadium will be privately financed and that “we will work with Miami-Dade County Public Schools to establish our club as an educational resource for the community. We will also engage nearby businesses and residents as we develop our stadium design and take steps to enhance the neighbourhood”.
Through Beckham’s time playing in Manchester for United, Madrid, Los Angeles and Paris, the English free-kick specialist’s success added a keen burnish to his brand value.
His $31.6m four-year contract with Real Madrid resulted in more than a million sales of his famous number 23 shirt with the Beckham replica making up to 50 per cent of all shirt sales in his first season at Madrid alone.
The $250m five-year deal that later took him to Los Angeles included an option for him to invest in an MLS franchise at a discounted fee. His arrival spurred an increase in average fan attendance across the United States and led to a rise in the number of similar football club franchises being launched to tap into the sport’s popularity.
Finally, the news of his career-finale five-month stint with PSG in 2013 boosted his image across the world after he decided to donate all of his salary to a charity in Paris.
“I won’t receive any salary. My salary will go to a local children’s charity. That’s one of the things we are excited and proud to do,” Beckham announced.
Despite being at the club for only a short period, his brand power was soon proven as PSG sold more than 400,000 replica Beckham shirts while on their way to winning their first French Ligue 1 title in 19 years.
Mr Ennasri believes there are good reasons as to why Qatar and Beckham may be considering a strategic tie-up. “The relationship between Qatar and David Beckham through PSG is already in itself a beginning of explanation,” he says.
“For Qatar, which wishes to position itself in a growing market [the MLS in the US is expanding rapidly], the nation needs a door to enter from and Beckham [would be] the key.”
Neither PSG nor QSI responded to requests for comment. MBU did not comment specifically on a potential tie-up.
Qatar is yet to make its presence heavily felt in North America in terms of exposure after a failed attempt to capture US attention through the media. Al Jazeera America, owned by Qatar’s Al Jazeera Media Network, recently announced it will shut down by the end of this month, after three years in service, citing undesirable economic conditions.
To offset that negative outcome and to gain a foothold in an increasingly lucrative US football market, it would make sense for the state to tie up with a charismatic individual who already has star appeal across the US.
Mr Ennasri believes the rewards for Qatar would be well worth any investment it might make in Beckham’s Miami franchise.
“Qatar will certainly ‘lose’ money [with an] initial investment, but the gains in terms of media exposure will compensate for the budgetary imbalance,” he says.
“In other words, Qatar gains in symbolic dividends what it loses in financial resources.”
If Qatar does back Beckham with Miami, Mr Ennasri says the country would, as at PSG, build a solid team around players towards the end of their careers alongside new recruits from Qatar’s esteemed training centres – Aspire which are based in Doha and Dakar in Senegal.
“The nation is working towards global expansion and considering recent investments by China in football, there is a strong reason to believe that the commercial side of football will continue to enjoy a strong growth. Qatar does not wish to be left behind.”
Perhaps the most noticeable Chinese deals so far are Wang Jianlin’s $52m purchase last year of a 20 per cent stake in Spanish club Atletico Madrid and, in December, China Media Capital (CMC)’s $400m purchase of a 13 per cent stake in City Football Group, the holding company that owns Manchester City and the US’ New York City FC.
Fans of MBU welcomed reports of a tie up with PSG and QSI.
“The news of QSI [possibly] joining MBU was well accepted by the fan club as a whole. We needed an additional financial partner and it’s a huge bonus that the partner also happens to be yet another giant in the soccer community,” says Julio Caballero, the president of the Southern Legion, a growing supporters group for the Miami team.
But what is in it for PSG in any deal?
“The most significant [benefit] I can think of is that Beckham’s Miami franchise could take younger PSG players on loan and, that way, the French capital outfit’s excellent young talents could be given valuable game time to develop,” says Mr Johnson.
“Apart from that, strong links with Miami might increase exposure in the USA and MLS, but I don’t think PSG really need it at this point. They already appear to be well established over there,” he says. “In the event that Beckham’s Miami franchise uncovered a really talented player, then perhaps it would help PSG to position themselves well to sign him. However, I think it would be more likely that we see the talent going from PSG to Miami and not the other way around. At least in the short to medium term,” Mr Johnson says.
Mr Johnson is not overly optimistic of a deal. “I don’t think Beckham has that much to offer PSG [and Qatar] now, unless his Miami franchise becomes something of a feeder outfit for the French champions.”
MBU has also reportedly been approached by several other prospective partners with strong interest from the likes of FC Barcelona at initial stages, the Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich along with consortiums based in China, the Middle East and within the US.
Michelle Kaufman, a sports writer with the Miami Herald, is by no means certain a partnership with PSG and QSI will materialise. “I don’t think it is guaranteed that he will sign a deal with PSG. There are three investment groups [MBU] are having serious talks with, and PSG is one of them,” she says.
“They obviously have a great relationship with Beckham, but Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and a Chinese group are also in the picture.”
A statement from Beckham’s group recently announced: “As MBU lays the groundwork for launching a world-class soccer club in Miami, our team has attracted interest from a number of potential partners. [MBU] are evaluating these possibilities, with the goal of bringing additional resources and international expertise that draws players, staff and fans from around the world,”
Although securing land for a stadium, which is a mandatory requirement by MLS before any new franchise can kick off league play, is a major boost for MBU and Miami’s football fans, Mr Caballero has niggles over the manner in which MLS has responded to Miami’s push for a football team, having not as yet granted MBU the go-ahead.
“We are very confident MBU will be given the next MLS expansion spot, but we are concerned that the time frame could potentially drag on as the business deal continues to progress.
“To be perfectly honest, we don’t know why MLS hasn’t already granted us a team since we are currently ahead of where LA, New York and Orlando were when they were granted expansion teams,” he says.
According to Ms Kaufman, Miami residents are as concerned about where the stadium is as they are about the players MBU might attract.
“The biggest concern Miami residents have with the club is the location of the stadium [it must be easy to get to, fans say] and also that the team bring in top-name players, because fans here are mostly immigrants from South America and Europe and they are very soccer-savvy and will not be satisfied with a second-rate team.”
Although any potential partnership between the PSG, Qatar and Beckham is up in the air at the moment, MBU understands the need for a partner that can be strategic to the club, city and the league.
“Any potential partner will share our team’s vision of creating a team that makes Miami and MLS proud. At the same time, we are performing due diligence on our stadium site as we move toward finalising the acquisition of two privately-held properties and a third county-owned parcel over the coming weeks,” MBU says.
As it stands, Qatar’s government via PSG is convinced of the importance of sports in its push to raise its global profile and increased US exposure would only add to that.
“As the Qataris are on the lookout for new spaces and innovative partnerships to strengthen their authority in sports, any partnership with the Miami side, especially through David Beckham, is an opportunity of a lifetime that Qatar cannot afford to ignore,” says Mr Ennasri.
And Ms Kaufmann says the US city has all the ingredients for a successful football team Qatar could gain from.
“Miami is a perfect place for professional soccer. Miami consistently has the highest US television ratings for World Cup and Champions League matches,” she says.
“Also, many pro players from Europe and Latin America like to vacation here and many have homes here. It seems a perfect match for an MLS team. If Beckham can get this team launched, it would help the league because it would provide a high-profile team in Miami, a global city that is the gateway to Latin America, so MLS could spread its brand to that part of the world.”
Only time will tell if Miami residents will see brands such as Qatar Airways and Aspire on hoardings in and around the city. And, as is always the case with the beautiful game, it is not over until the final whistle.