IN November 2010, Argentina and Brazil played a friendly in Qatar. Lionel Messi, then 23, already a global football superstar and Ballon d’Or winner, and Neymar, then an 18-year-old rising global sensation, were on the pitch at the Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium. Over a decade later, the duo will now play together for a Qatari-owned club, a year before Qatar stages the biggest sporting event ever in the Gulf.
Messi’s move to Paris St Germain after leaving Barcelona seems to be the final piece in the jigsaw for Qatar’s showcase club in its quest to win the prize it most covets — the Champions League. But it extends beyond that. And to November 2022, when Qatar will host the FIFA World Cup. During his time at Barca, Messi played and won titles in jerseys that had Qatar Foundation and Qatar Airways emblazoned on them, but this is bigger.
Messi playing and lifting trophies for the club owned by Qatar is the biggest promotion the tiny, oil-rich state could’ve hoped for. One, the Qataris wouldn’t probably not even have thought of when Messi played in their country back in 2010, a few weeks before they were awarded the hosting rights for the World Cup. Soon after, Qatar began sponsoring Barca through the Qatar Foundation, becoming the first named sponsors to appear in front of the players’ jerseys in the club’s history.
Then, in June 2011, Qatar Sports Investments — owned by the oil-rich state — bought PSG in a move that was criticised by many as ‘sportswashing’, a practice describing how regimes use sport to launder their reputation, to gloss over miserable records on human rights. Fuelled by Qatar, PSG immediately set their sights on winning the Champions League and getting into the European elite. Neymar was signed from Barca for a world record fee in 2017 to achieve that and they almost got there in 2020, when they lost the final to Bayern Munich. Now, they have signed Messi.
“The Messi deal isn’t just about Messi … it’s about Qatar and 2022,” Professor Simon Chadwick, the director of the Eurasian sports centre at France’s Emlyon Business School told Dawn on Wednesday, minutes after Messi’s signing was confirmed by PSG. “It’s a really important year for the Qataris, obviously staging the World Cup and if PSG can successfully win the Champions League in May, it will be an important milestone in the national development of Qatar as a country.
“Sports, and specifically football, are an integral part of the country’s vision and development plan. This is a return on investment. If winning the Champions League and hosting the World Cup are achieved in the same year, it will be job done for the Qatar government. It will also have a political impact in terms of profile, the image and the reputation of Qatar, which we know is keen to build the country’s brand and project soft power.”
Like the Champions League for PSG, the World Cup has proven elusive for Messi. By Qatar 2022, Messi would be 35, and it would be, perhaps, his last shot at winning it. There shouldn’t be any concerns about his age though. The years haven’t slowed him down. In July, after a long season with Barca, Messi lifted his first trophy with Argentina when he lead the side to the Copa America title.
Messi’s quest to win the World Cup and attain sporting immortality is the storyline that fits in perfectly with Qatar, like any other previous tournament hosts, trying to conquer the hearts and minds of the world. His arrival comes about eight months since the rest of the Middle East restored diplomatic ties with Qatar. But signing the Argentine ahead of Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City, the only other club which could afford him, is a statement by PSG’s ownership.
“There is a lot of messaging in it,” James Dorsey, a researcher at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of ‘The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer’, told Dawn on Wednesday. “But I don’t think it is as big a statement as when Neymar was signed by PSG as the very beginning of the diplomatic breakdown between Qatar and the rest of the Middle East. Diplomatic ties have been restored but Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are still not as cordial and getting Messi ahead of City is a big thing statement; a feather in the cap ahead of the World Cup.”
Messi’s two-year deal with PSG will expire six months after the World Cup in Qatar ends. But Dorsey says that Qatar will have reaped the benefits by then.
“Looking beyond the World Cup, there is no question that football as a soft power makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Mega events are few and far between but there are so many soft power opportunities in Europe, for example winning the Champions League. Qatar will look to build on this and naturally its next move will be to try and host the Olympics.”
Chadwick believes Messi signing for PSG ‘was inevitable’, tracing it back to that 2010 friendly, and to the start of Qatar’s sponsorship of Barca after winning the World Cup hosting bid. Since then, Pep Guardiola, Barca’s revolutionary coach, became a Qatar 2022 ambassador. Barca’s midfield maestro Xavi Hernandez decided to wind down his career in Qatar, also becoming a World Cup ambassador and is a coach at Qatari club Al Sadd. Neymar and Messi have now been reunited in Paris.
“The lineage of what is just happened can be drawn all of the way back to that point,” he reckoned, even though he says it came out of the blue after Barca announced they could no longer afford Messi because of their financial state. “There is Barca DNA in all of this. There is a relationship between PSG and Qatar and one between the Qataris and Barca. So this is almost like a chronicle of a signing foretold. There is something serendipitous about all of this because if you have a country that holds a club that is trying to win the CL in a particular year, if you get the opportunity to sign a player that will enhance the prospect of you doing that then obviously you’re likely to do it. It is intended to be a tangible contribution to not just Qatar’s footballing goals but also national development goals.”
Qatar winning the right to host the World Cup was never universally accepted. Since being awarded the event, Qatar’s World Cup organisers have been rejecting allegations of bribing FIFA officials to secure the rights. They have staved off all of them, including the criminal indictment by the US Department of Justice accusing three senior FIFA officials of receiving bribes for voting in favour of the Gulf state hosting the tournament, and clung on to the World Cup. They’ve also thwarted international scrutiny over rights of migrant workers building the venues for the World Cup as well as protests by several national teams in Europe about concerns over human rights in Qatar.
“There has been labour reforms introduced since but of course there are several different views,” says Dorsey. “The International Labour Organisation and trade unions have been positive and while Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been critical, their stance isn’t the same as it was before. Of course you can say Qatar’s initial response was a mess but they got their communications and marketing together during the diplomatic breakdown and they’re now approaching the finish line.”