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There used to be a golden rule among football fans: you either supported your dad’s team or your local club. Of course there were plenty who deviated from this rule over the decades, but, generally speaking, most people stuck to it. The big change came in the 1990s with the arrival of the Champions League and globalization.
The Champions League concentrated wealth and, by extension, trophies in the hands of a small pool of elite clubs, while globalization broadcast the sport across the world. Glory hunting—picking your team based on their success—became more pronounced, and the world started to fill up with an increasing number of Manchester United and AC Milan “fans,” or whichever team happened to be on the biggest winning streak at the time.
Travel to Africa or Asia, and you’ll see plenty of Real Madrid or Chelsea shirts. But one team whose kit you’d rarely encounter, until perhaps very recently, is Paris Saint-Germain. This should come as no surprise. Up until a few years ago, PSG was a completely unremarkable club. It plays in the French league, which is arguably only the fifth best in the world and one few people outside of France pay attention to. It has won its domestic title fewer times than Nantes and, unlike Romania’s Steaua Bucuresti, has never claimed the European Cup.
But PSG’s visibility has jumped through the roof in the last few years, and particularly since they signed Brazilian superstar Neymar last summer from Barcelona for a cool $260 million.
As much as people balked at the vulgar transfer fee (which rises to nearly half a billion dollars when you factor in his $225 million salary over the course of his five year contract), the commercial effect for PSG was immediate. Signing the world’s third-best player, one destined to ascend to the throne currently occupied by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo once the two aging titans retire, has given the club a glamour injection of steroidal proportions.
Here in Berlin, where I live, there has been a dramatic uptick of people wearing PSG merchandise. Whenever I travel across Europe or further afield I see people kitted out in the club’s training gear or match day shirts. Barcelona had to win the Champions League three times in five years to achieve this sort of prominence. Arsenal, an international powerhouse up until a few years ago, has been eclipsed by the Parisians in terms of visibility in just a single summer.
Now, PSG boasts a prestige that few other clubs in the world enjoy: it launched a limited edition Nike Air Max 90 at a pop-up shop in Miami last July and its merch also appeared on the runway at Paris Fashion Week after French label KOCHÉ weaved it into its SS18 range. This follows earlier collaborations with colette and Beats by Dre.
Having bought the game’s most marketable player and tactically selected very specific brand partnerships, PSG seems to be positioning itself as the official team of the fashion crowd. But few of the club’s new fans will know very much about the dirty money that made it all possible.
In 2011, PSG was purchased by Qatar Sports Investment, a sovereign investment vehicle owned by the royal family of the small Arabian country of Qatar, who pumped the club full of cash and started buying up some of the continent’s biggest stars for ridiculous fees, namely Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2012 and Edinson Cavani the following year.
Qatar, the world’s richest country per capita, where the average yearly salary sits at $125,000, had made headlines a year earlier after it successfully bid to host the 2022 World Cup — the first to be held in the Middle East.
The decision caused an uproar in the footballing community for a number of reasons. First of all, the country has no footballing heritage. Not only that, but the searing desert heat during the summer makes it impossible to take a leisurely stroll, never mind chase a ball around at breakneck speeds for 90 minutes. To avoid massacring the planet’s most valuable athletes, Qatar promised to build air-conditioned stadiums. Eventually, it was decided that the tournament would be held in the winter, when temperatures are comparable to European summers.
FIFA, football’s spectacularly corrupt governing body, argued that it was bringing the game to new frontiers, but really most people suspected that the Qatari’s had used the riches accrued from its vast natural gas reserves to pay off FIFA officials in exchange for votes. Many of them would later be arrested by the FBI in an investigation that brought down the two men most responsible for giving the World Cup to Qatar: Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, presidents of FIFA and UEFA respectively.
As stadium building for the World Cup has advanced, Qatar has come under increasing scrutiny for its abysmal human rights record and the slave-like conditions endured by cheap migrant labor being used to build the infrastructure for the 2022 competition. Being overworked in searing temperatures and inadequate safety measures on construction sites have led to numerous deaths and, according to a study conducted by the International Trade Union Confederation in 2014, up to 4000 workers could die by the time the competition finally kicks off in four years time.
Aside from brutalizing underpaid migrants, Qatar is often accused of sponsoring Islamic fundamentalists across the Middle East, including the Taliban, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and numerous al-Qaeda affiliates. In a country with a native population of only 313,000 people, where the state owns pretty much everything, the money that funds footballers for PSG and weapons for ISIS is likely coming out of the same pot.
While buying Paris Saint-Germain merchandise doesn’t directly contribute to exploitative labor practices and the financing of terrorism in the same way that shopping at certain high street brands funds sweatshop owners, it does help sanitize Qatar’s image. According to the English journalist and football expert James Montague, this is the whole reason why QSI bought the French club in the first place. Writing in the most recent issue of Delayed Gentrification magazine, he states that Qatar “made sport an integral plank of their foreign policy in the belief that hosting and investing in high-profile events provided two invaluable things: the opportunity to rebrand and advertise themselves on the international stage, and the status of an equal partner among the elite nations of the world.”
Where global superpowers like America and China are assured of their global standing due to their militaristic and economic might, smaller countries rely on soft power. Germany might have Europe’s biggest economy, but Britain, France and even Italy arguably have much more soft power, which artificially boosts their global standing. PSG serves a similar purpose for Qatar. Just think about it: Bahrain and Kuwait are similarly wealthy countries of comparable size from the same region, yet it’s Qatar that’s the bigger household name.
So if you’re thinking about buying yourself PSG’s new Nike kit, just remember that you’ll be turning yourself into a billboard for a very well-calculated agenda.
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- Main & Featured Image: Estrop / Getty Images