The Dark Prince of Qatar’s (and Europe’s) football

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The success story was so beautiful. A tale of a thousand and one nights to make any Hollywood producer salivate. The story of a pearl fisherman’s son born on the shores of a distant emirate who became the most influential man on the football planet. A commoner as powerful as a head of state. The saga of Nasser Al-Khelaifi, a few days before the World Cup in Qatar, could well turn into a nightmare for the leaders of his country.

Explanation: the all-powerful president of PSG finds himself at the heart of a dark affair of blackmail, where former cops, a strange lobbyist, tenors of the Parisian bar, the intelligence services of Qatar meet. But what can the very discreet Nasser Al-Khelaifi, alias “NAK”, do in a John le Carré novel?

The plot of this thriller is tied to the “Carré” of the Parc des Princes, the VIP lounge of PSG, nicknamed the “Carré des vanités”. On match nights, two hundred handpicked personalities jostle there: people, politicians, businessmen, ambitious people of all kinds attracted by the windfall of Qatar.

The French gave Nasser Al-Khelaifi the nickname “La Prince” (“The Prince”). The wrong article because the Qatari in 2011, at the beginning of his presidency at FC Paris Saint-Germain, was not yet fully fluent in the national language and therefore often missed the right gender article. And “Prince” because of his friendship with the Qatari ruler, the Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Today, Al-Khelaifi is one of the most powerful men in world football – and perhaps its most feared mastermind. The Paris club boss is, among other posts, chairman of Europe’s powerful club association ECA and sits on the board of the European Football Union Uefa. As CEO of the Qatari TV station beIN Sports, he is a major sponsor of the world association Fifa, Uefa and the largest football leagues in Europe.

And he is a leading member of the organizing committee for the controversial Winter World Cup in the Persian Gulf, which starts this Sunday. An abundance of power that is increasingly causing discomfort – also, but not only, among those responsible for European national football leagues. Al-Khelaifi and his Parisians have long been regarded by many as “The Untouchables” – as the untouchables who polarize, but who hardly anyone dares to touch in public.

Al-Khelaifi’s steep career as a functionary did not begin on the soccer field, but on the tennis court – and that with a lot of running. As the top professional in his country, he was ranked 995th in the world. In ten years as a professional, he earned $16,201 in prize money. Nevertheless, the then Crown Prince Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani hired him as his personal tennis coach. The two became close friends. Upon his accession to the throne, the emir appointed the son of a pearl fisherman as minister without portfolio. And to the head of the sovereign wealth fund Qatar Sports Investments, which today owns 100 percent of Paris Saint-Germain.

“La Prince” got his chance to rise to the top of international football in 2021: a group of twelve top European clubs were planning a revolution in the form of the founding of a Super League. It should compete with the Champions League – Uefa’s financial driving force. One of his main aides was Andrea Agnelli, the boss of Juventus Turin. At the time, the Italian was also head of the ECA club association and had previously been a close confidante of Uefa President Aleksander Ceferin.

At the time, Al-Khelaifi demonstratively opposed the Super League. In the end, the football revolt failed with a bang. Ceferin expelled the renegade Agnelli and brought Al-Khelaifi to his side instead. Since then, absurdly, he has been considered the keeper of football tradition – before that he was rather the opposite. His no to the Super League is said to be far less due to his newly ignited love of football, but was apparently more on the order of Qatar, at least that’s what the club association ECA is rumored to say. A year before the World Cup, the emirate did not want to provoke a dispute with the world association Fifa, which had sided with Uefa in solidarity.

Al-Khelaifi rarely speaks in public, and he rarely gives interviews. If, exceptionally, he does express himself, then with well-considered words and mostly on the defensive. Human rights violations in Qatar? There isn’t, the Qataris are warm-hearted people who would never allow something like that. Breaches of Uefa’s financial rules by pumping almost unlimited funds from Qatar into Paris Saint-Germain to finally win the Champions League? Al-Khelaifi affirms: “We always want to comply with the rules of financial fair play.” Just to prevent star striker Kylian Mbappé from Paris from moving to Real Madrid, the French put together a 630 million euro package for their exceptional player in the summer. Mbappé, the Brazilian Neymar, the Argentinian Lionel Messi, the Spaniard Sergio Ramos, the Italian Gianluigi Donnarumma – in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, a team of superstars plays in a concentration that has not existed for a long time.

Now Uefa has reacted: The club has to pay a fine of 75 million euros for violating financial fair play. However, only ten million were due immediately, which should at best wring a weary smile from the sheikhs. 65 million euros are suspended on probation. Comment by Uefa President Ceferin to the German paper “Die Welt”: “I do not know the details and do not comment on the decisions of independent Uefa bodies responsible for compliance with financial regulations.”

The financial injections from Qatar are not the only cause of resentment in Europe. Al-Khelaifi’s sometimes vain and arrogant demeanor also costs him sympathy. His mood swings are notorious, coupled with a lack of self-control when something goes against the grain. Then the smart, polite gentleman in his perfectly fitting tailor-made suits sometimes gets in rage. After Paris lost the Champions League last season in the round of 16 against Real Madrid, Al-Khelaifi stormed into the referee’s cabin with his then sports director Leonardo, insulted the referee and dismantled his equipment. However, only Leonardo and not Al-Khelaifi was punished by Uefa with a ban. Criminal proceedings against Al-Khelaifi took place in Switzerland last summer. The allegation: incitement to breach of trust in connection with the sale of the TV rights to the 2026 and 2030 World Cups to beIN Sports. Al-Khelaifi let then-Fifa general secretary Jérôme Valcke live rent-free in a luxury villa in Sardinia. Valcke was convicted, Al-Khelaifi got away with an acquittal.

La Prince was of course not present in Switzerland when the Swiss Federal Criminal Court (TPF) in Bellinzona acquitted him on October 30 last year, as part of the procedure opened against him for the granting of television rights for the World Cups football 2026 and 2030 to the Qatari channel BeIn. Exempted from attending the oral communication of the TPF judgment, due to the Covid 19 epidemic, the Qatari boss of BeIn Media and Paris-Saint-Germain savored this legal victory. “After four years of baseless allegations, fictitious accusations and constant attacks on my reputation, justice has completely cleared me,” said Mr. Al-Khelaifi. “It is a full and complete acquittal that we obtain for our client”, added one of his Swiss lawyers.

The Public Ministry of the Swiss Confederation (MPC) had requested twenty-eight months of partial suspended detention against the Qatari, prosecuted for “instigation to aggravated unfair management”. He was accused by the Swiss prosecution of having acquired, in December 2013, a villa in Sardinia for 5 million euros, in order to make it available to the French secretary general of the International Football Federation (FIFA) of the time, Jérôme Valcke, eager to buy this villa.

The court accused Valcke of having received from Al-Khelaifi benefits worth between 1.4 million and 2.3 million euros, in particular “the exclusive use of the villa Bianca”, from March 2014 to September 2015. For investigators, he did so “in return” for granting Qatari groups Al-Jazeera and BeIN Media media rights in the Middle East and North Africa for the 2026 World Cups and 2030. A commercial contract was signed by FIFA to this effect, in April 2014, against 480 million dollars.

After an “amicable” agreement (accompanied by financial compensation) with the Al-Khelaifi camp, FIFA withdrew, in January, its complaint filed in December 2016. The Qatari then saw the charges of “corruption active” that weighed on him. This arrangement, which “the International Federation has not defined further”, according to the Swiss prosecutor’s office, “partly” also benefited Mr. Valcke.

While the MPC had requested against him thirty-six months in prison with partial suspension, the ex-number 2 of FIFA was acquitted of the charge of “aggravated unfair management”. The TPF considered that “there was no evidence that FIFA could have entered into more economically advantageous contracts for the aforementioned media rights”.

And the story continues: French media reported that the Qatari had a businessman arrested in Doha in 2020. He was said to have been in possession of documents incriminating the emirate and the former tennis coach. The desert state is said to have helped with the controversial award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar twelve years ago – through bribery. The Franco-Algerian was only released after nine months when the documents had been handed over. Al-Khelaifi rejects all accusations and sees himself as a victim of an attempted blackmail. It is a curious four-page document which is at the heart of the affair between the Qatari businessman and the Franco-Algerian lobbyist Tayeb Benabderrahmane . Co-signed on July 10, 2020, by Mr. Benabderrahmane, represented by the Parisian law firm Oplus, and one of the lawyers for “NAK”, Renaud Semerdjian, this transactional “memorandum of understanding” was supposed to “put an amicable end to the “dispute” between the two men “relating to misappropriation by Mr. T. (Benabderrahmane) of confidential documents to the detriment of the victim (Al-Khelaifi)”.

The document, “governed and interpreted in accordance with French law”, lists a series of “declarations and commitments”, and which Benabderrahmane has been contesting since September 2021 before a Paris court. The lobbyist believes he initialed him under duress while he was under house arrest at the Intercontinental Hotel in Doha, with a ban on leaving Qatar, after five and a half months of “arbitrary” detention in the emirate.

Spain’s league boss Javier Tebas is currently suing beIN Sports because payments of 51 million euros to La Liga are outstanding. Tebas warned via Twitter: “Al-Khelaifi is as dangerous as the Super League.” When it comes to foreign TV rights in particular, the Qatari can use his power by either pouring millions of euros into Europe’s top leagues – or turning off the money supply. This is what happened in the case of the German Bundesliga, which has not been seen on television in the important Middle East and North Africa region with 24 countries and 380 million people for the past two years.

Recently, a Twitter scandal involving Paris Saint-Germain became public. Between 2018 and 2020, a Barcelona-based communications agency is said to have created numerous tweets on behalf of the club via fake accounts with the aim of damaging the reputation of people and media considered to be overly critical.

The list of trolls even included players like Mbappé or Adrien Rabiot (now at Juventus), as well as the president of Olympique Lyon, Jean-Michel Aulas, and the renowned sports daily “L’Equipe”. The capital city klub denies any connection to the agency.

The approximately 200 clubs in Europe’s club association ECA are now very well aware that their top representative often does not appear in a good light in public. Some would like to have Al-Khelaifi voted out and select a successor of integrity. One name that keeps coming up is that of ECA Vice President and Bayern CEO Oliver Kahn.

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