Earlier this month, Spanish football club Barcelona completed the 160m euro ($198m) transfer of Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho from England’s Liverpool football club. The move was a record purchase by a Spanish club and the highest sale of a player in the history of the English Premier League.
The transfer follows last summer’s high-profile exodus of Brazilian star forward Neymar, from Barcelona, who joined Qatari-owned French club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) with a record-shattering 222 million euros ($263m) buy-out payment. Since then, clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool have had to pay over the odds for their new recruits, while a traditional powerhouse like Spanish football club Real Madrid was priced out of a move for promising young prospect Kylian Mbappe.
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While club managers and fans alike have since lamented the sudden rise in the cost of the world’s top footballers, what has often been left out of the discussion is the degree to which the blockade of Qatar by several of its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours contributed to European football’s surging transfer market.
Neymar’s transfer came at a time when Qatar faced an aggressive global propaganda campaign and accusations of supporting terrorism.
Last June, London-based newspaper The Sun ran a headline warning that “wearing a Barcelona shirt in the UAE with Qatar Airways advertising could land you in prison for 15 years”. While the story was an obvious exaggeration typical of the English tabloids, it nonetheless reflected the sudden escalation in tensions by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, who earlier that week had cut off all relations with Qatar in an attempt to force it to alter its domestic and foreign policies.
Photos circulated across social media of billboards in Emirati shopping malls featuring Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suarez in their Barcelona shirts with the Qatar Airways sponsorship logo visibly censored. Whatever political pressure this regional bloc hoped to exert onto Qatar had quickly degenerated into petty displays of this sort.
To be sure, football diplomacy is nothing new. States have frequently relied on notable matches and tournaments at the club and national team levels in order to improve their international image or repair relations with rival countries. Following its rise in the mid-1990s as an energy-rich nation seeking to climb out of the domineering Saudi orbit, Qatar invested heavily in, among other things, football.
In 2010, Qatar won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In 2012, the state-owned Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) completed the purchase of PSG, and, a year later, the national airline became the first-ever corporate sponsor to appear on the iconic Barcelona shirt.
When it pursued Neymar last August, PSG clearly had footballing reasons for doing so. Neymar is on track to replace former teammate Leo Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best player when their remarkable decade-long stranglehold over the Ballon d’Or award finally comes to an end. The club’s chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi had also long expressed his admiration for the player and made no secret of PSG’s desire to add him to the team’s forward line, especially after the role Neymar played in knocking PSG out of the Champion’s League, providing two goals and an assist in the final minutes of Barcelona’s improbable comeback victory last March.
Still, there was little reason to expect a deal could have happened last summer. For one, Neymar had just signed a five-year contract extension that would have kept him at Barcelona until 2021. The 222-million-euro buyout clause (a requirement in Spanish football) was included as a prohibitive warning to would-be suitors.
The most expensive transfer until that point was English football club Manchester United’s 105m euro ($120m) purchase of midfielder Paul Pogba, from Italian club Juventus, a year earlier. Furthermore, Barcelona was a global footballing juggernaut not known for giving up its marquee players at the height of their careers, especially not to clubs with limited experience on the European stage.
But when, on June 5, 2017, the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini, and Egyptian governments announced their blockade of Qatar, they simultaneously unleashed a massive propaganda campaign intended to stigmatise the country as a supporter of terrorism and isolate it internationally. Soon after, several other smaller states announced that they too would join the blockade, largely a consequence of threats and inducements offered by the original quartet.
In response, Qatar solidified ties with regional powers Turkey and Iran, which expanded their trade with the blockaded country, and, in the case of Turkey, accelerated plans to establish troop presence to ward off a potential military invasion.
However, Qatar has also sought to challenge the blockade in the increasingly fraught court of global opinion, where its status as an ambitious nation aiming to leave its mark in the spheres of diplomacy and culture was being significantly jeopardised.
In the months since, it has become increasingly clear that Qatar’s aspirations in the sporting world have irked its neighbours as much as its supposedly outsized role in regional political conflicts. A report by an obscure British consulting firm questioning Qatar’s ability to host the 2022 World Cup was heavily promoted in Saudi and Emirati media outlets. Dubai’s police chief, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, put it more bluntly, tweeting that the blockade of Qatar would end if it simply renounced its World Cup hosting duties.
Indeed, the Emirati government has used its own footballing interests to advance its political agenda. Board members of the Abu-Dhabi-owned Manchester City were involved in lobbying the British government to investigate and ban the Muslim Brotherhood. Among other things, the Saudi-Emirati bloc accused Qatar of sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood’s political parties in the region, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Although the British government inquiry issued a somewhat critical report on the movement in 2014, it ultimately resisted pressures to take action against it. Attempts by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ban beIN Sports, the Qatari-owned sports TV network that retains broadcasting rights for most international football leagues and tournaments, also fell flat late last year. The sports network is an offshoot of Al Jazeera, whose critical news coverage of regional affairs has outraged authoritarian rulers. Shutting down Al Jazeera emerged as a key demand by the quartet for ending the blockade of Qatar.
Amid rising pressure across a number of fronts, the pursuit of a world-class athlete to confront efforts to stigmatise Qatar was a shrewd manoeuvre. QSI, also chaired by Khelaifi, was the architect of the deal, paying Neymar a reported 300 million euros ($354m) for a five-year contract.
Along with joining PSG on a five-year contract until 2022, the Brazilian also committed to act as spokesperson for the Qatar World Cup taking place the same year. In this way, not only did PSG acquire the player who could elevate the team’s presence on the European stage, but Qatar obtained a symbol of its defiance in the face of its attempted isolation.
At a time when the Saudi Crown Prince concluded a $350bn weapons deal to persuade Donald Trump to offer American backing for the Qatar blockade, $600m for one of the world’s finest footballers and a potential ambassador for Qatar’s international image seems like something of a bargain.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.