Even though the Olympics are almost upon us, the current sports headlines across much of Europe are celebrating the signing of Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic by the French club Paris Saint-Germain. The three-year deal is worth a reported $30.5 million for Ibrahimovic’s former team, AC Milan, and an estimated net salary of $17 million a year for the man French dailies are already giddily calling “Ibra.” Sporting director Leonardo described the move as “the biggest deal in this club’s history,” with Ibrahimovic himself thanking his Brazilian boss and the club for making “something impossible possible and now I am very happy … I’m here to make history and I will enjoy all the trophies we bring home.”
The striker’s arrival follows the recent recruitment by PSG of more marquee players from Italian sides — Ibrahimovic’s former Milan teammate Thiago Silva, Napoli’s Ezequiel Lavezzi and Pescara’s Marco Verratti — representing nearly $122 million in transactions. Don’t be surprised if this spending spree soon lands PSG the nickname “Chelsea-sur-Seine.”
But the real story behind these aquisitions is the man making it all happen: Qatari businessman and main PSG shareholder, Nasser al Khelaifi. Not only does it look like the 38-year-old executive has made good on his promise to transform the perennially under-performing, crisis-prone club into a European footballing force, he’s also using the team as a key element within his wider strategy to create a Qatari TV power in global sports broadcasting.
“His plan was to take control of a well-known name in European soccer, and make investments necessary to turn it into a quasi-certain contender in high-profile Champions’ League play each year. That’s exactly what he’s done with PSG,” says Vincent Chaudel, a sports economist in Paris for the international management consultancy Kurt Salmon. “All that goes hand-in-hand with his projects in international sports broadcasting.”
Ibrahimovic’s signing brings both star quality and formidable offensive power to Paris — something the team and French soccer has been lacking. “PSG never had a superstar,” al Khelaifi said Wednesday in presenting Ibrahimovic to the press. “Now, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, PSG has a superstar.” (How the $55.4 million record signing in French football history, Argentinian Javier Pastore, as well as Italian defender Silva, feel about that description is anyone’s guess)
Yet with the lavish praise heaped upon the Swede — Ibrahimovic was one of his country’s only leading lights during Sweden’s underwhelming Euro 2012 campaign, which included his sumptuous strike against the French — comes one of the most notorious egos and attitudes in the game. Critics note the 30 year-old’s scoring prowess is offset by selfish play, a penchant for trash-talk, and talent for turning team mates into enemies. Detractors also note Ibrahimovic’s failure to lead any of the many league championship-winning sides he’s played on to lift a Champions League trophy — the supreme accomplishment in European play.
His defenders retort that the missing item from his resume is but the exception to the wider rule. They contend Ibrahimovic’s presence on league-winning teams over the past eight years was no coincidence, and that without Ibrahimovic working his magic, his clubs wouldn’t have qualified for the most prestigious tournament in European club soccer in the first place. And that piece of the puzzle may have been key to al Khelaifi’s thinking behind signing the Swedish captain.
“In addition to the exposure and prestige involved, additional revenues from Champions League for PSG represent about $24 million,” says Chaudel. “(Al Khelaifi) has reportedly said he’s willing to spend as much as $600 million over five years to make PSG French champion, and an increasingly competitive fixture in European play. As Chelsea and Manchester City learned, spending lots of money doesn’t bring titles overnight — but it certainly makes eventually winning them a lot easier.”
Ibrahimovic’s reported salary will be among the highest in the pro game behind the $24 million Samuel Eto’o earns with Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala. His signing is only the most recent coup in al Khelaifi’s development efforts. Given its frequent use, the Qatari’s checkbook probably won’t be put away just yet, even if Leonardo maintains there won’t be any further signings this offseason.
Almost immediately after his Qatar Investment Authority took a 70% stake in PSG in 2011, al Khelaifi made it clear he was willing to dig deep in his pockets to turn PSG around. His first move was to persuade former Brazilian great (and ex-PSG player) Leonardo to run the Paris shop just weeks after resigning as manager of Inter Milan. The pair then went to work buying players from more powerful teams and leagues. Those included the Brazilian defender Alex from Chelsea, Pastore from Palermo, and Thiago’s Silva and Motta from the rival Milan clubs. To shape that talent, PSG suprisingly enticed former Juventus and Chelsea coach, Carlo Ancelotti, to come aboard. With Ibrahimovic joining that stable of names, PSG — and French football — is suddenly getting attention abroad.
(LIST: 10 Things to Do in Paris)
Those surprised glances may not end any time soon. Chaudel thinks al Khelaifi is likely to continue investing seriously big bucks in the coming months to rapidly assemble a team capable of winning France’s Ligue 1 (PSG were runners-up to Montpellier last season) and becoming a real contender in Europe. Once that “big bang” has created critical footballing mass, the expensive roster can be fine tuned with more targeted and less pricy acquisitions, who would be keen to jump on the bandwagon.
A winning profile for PSG will help al Khelaifi’s efforts to boost club income (and ultimately offset player costs) through higher TV rights, increased merchandizing, and more lucrative sponsorship agreements. Similarly, a more potent and profitable PSG serves al Khelaifi’s audiovisual interests.
The reason? Al Khelaifi is also the president of al-Jazeera Sport — the Qatari news network’s sport affiliate. Before re-baptizing the channel BeIN Sport in France, al Khelaifi successfully bid on international broadcast rights for France’s pro soccer league. More significant still, he also snatched roughly half the domestic rights for league play from Canal Plus, the network that had enjoyed a virtual lock on French football since the late 1980s.
Ironically, Canal Plus long protected its dominant position at the top table by using its influence as the main shareholder of PSG — a stake it subsequently sold in 2006. Al Khelaifi appears to be replicating that same strategy of combining club owner and broadcasting interests under the same business plan.
It seems likely that development will continue internationally via al Jazeera Sport — which has secured the rights to a number of top tier sporting events, including the Champions League. At this point it’s unclear whether al Khelaifi will seek to create new national challengers like his French BeIN Sport in other European countries (it had been rumored that al Jazeera Sport was weighing up a bid for the U.K. rights to the English Premier League, which ended up staying at Sky Sports though BT did manage to get in on the act). Either way, his increased activity and success in soccer seems to be working towards another major objective: managing most of the major aspects as regards the global broadcasts of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
And that explains why bringing Ibrahimovic to PSG finds al Khelaifi headed towards a far larger goal than the one his players will find on the pitch.