PtG Analysis 12.06.2024

EURO 2024: Meet the man who secures Qatar’s grip on European football

As anticipation for the UEFA EURO 2024 builds, Qatar’s influence looms large behind the scenes. At the center is the Qatari minister Nasser Al-Khelaifi, a highly influential figure in European football. Stanis Elsborg delves into the many corruption allegations, conflicts of interest, and strategic maneuvers that make Al-Khelaifi a pivotal figure in Qatar's sports strategy.

When the lights were turned off after the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the international spotlight swiftly moved to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia due to its massive investments and engagement in global sports.  

However, there are compelling reasons for sports fans, journalists, sports leaders, and other stakeholders to maintain their focus on Qatar’s ongoing influence in sports. The upcoming UEFA EURO 2024 is a prime opportunity to do so. At the top of UEFA, Europe's football governing body, sits a Qatari minister, businessman, and a pivotal figure in Qatar’s sports strategy: Nasser Al-Khelaifi.

Al-Khelaifi is perhaps most famously known as the president of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and the man behind the signings of superstars like Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé, and Neymar. This achievement underscores the immense influence and prestige Al-Khelaifi wields as president of the French football giant.

Yet, his influence extends far beyond PSG, weaving a complex web of influence that poses substantial threats to the integrity of world football and highlights significant conflicts of interest.

The bond with the Emir and the 100m US dollar FIFA bonus

Born in 1973 in Qatar’s capital, Al-Khelaifi’s journey into the realm of sports began with tennis. Although he had limited success on the ATP Tour and barely broke into the world’s top 1000, he found relative success in the Davis Cup for Qatar, winning 12 out of 43 singles matches. It was also through his beloved sport that he met Qatar's current Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

"I'm six years older than him … and we first met when the crown prince was eight. We met through tennis, we used to play together. I have a good relationship with him,Al-Khelaifi said in an interview with The Guardian in 2012.

Since their early encounters on the tennis court, their bond has developed and made Al-Khelaifi one of the most important figures in Qatar’s sports endeavours.

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (C) and Nasser Al-Khelaifi (R), president of the Qatar Tennis Federation and CEO of Paris Saint-Germain, during the Qatar ExxonMobil Open 2018 men's final in Doha. Photo: Anadolu / Getty Images

In 2003, at the age of 30 he became the director of rights acquisitions at Qatar-owned Al Jazeera Sport. By 2008, he had risen to the position of general manager of Al Jazeera Sport and he also became chairman of Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) which owns PSG and was established as an entity in 2005 by the current Emir, according to the BBC.

Al-Khelaifi’s tenure as general manager of Al Jazeera Sport would eventually face scrutiny amid allegations surrounding Qatar's successful bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In 2018, FIFA whistleblower Bonita Merciades published her book ‘Whatever it takes - The inside story of the FIFA way'. Among many dubious details surrounding the bids for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups, she outlined how Qatar offered a “bonus payment of 100 million US dollars to FIFA from Al Jazeera if Qatar won 2022.” 

Approximately a year later, in March 2019, the Sunday Times revealed that the State of Qatar in 2010 secretly offered 400 million US dollars to FIFA for the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in the Middle East and North Africa region just 21 days before world football's governing body awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

However, there was an even more significant detail in the files seen by the Sunday Times. When they made the documentation public, one of the signatures on the contract promising a success fee of 100 million US dollars from Al Jazeera to FIFA "in the event that the 2022 competition is awarded to the state of Qatar” belonged to none other than the then general manager of Al Jazeera Sport, Nasser Al-Khelaifi.

This was a clear breach of FIFA’s own rules, but a case was never raised.

All of this, of course, is now history. However, delving into Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s current roles in the world sport reveals a staggering track record of numerous allegations of corruption and also raises serious concerns about the integrity of world sport and the pervasive conflicts of interest.

Al-Khelaifi’s rise to the pinnacle of European football

Al-Khelaifi is considered one of the most influential persons in European football due to his top positions within sport and for the State of Qatar. 

In 2011, when Qatar Sports Investments acquired Paris Saint-Germain, it marked a new era for the club and catapulted Nasser Al-Khelaifi to the forefront of European football’s power dynamics. Under Nasser Al-Khelaifi's leadership, PSG signed top players like David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Thiago Silva, Ángel Di María, and Achraf Hakimi.

The landmark 222 million euro transfer of Neymar from Barcelona to PSG epitomised Al-Khelaifi's ambition to assemble the world's best talent in Paris. As Peter Rutzler wrote in The New York Times: “It was more than just a football transfer. It was a statement of intent.” In subsequent years, Al-Khelaifi secured more high-profile signings including Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi.

Al-Khelaifi’s new role as PSG President also earned him a seat in the European Club Association (ECA). Recognised by UEFA and FIFA, ECA is an independent body that has represented 600 professional European football clubs since 2008. According to its website, ECA aims to "create value for its membership and beyond, safeguarding, strengthening, and developing European clubs’ interests as the key club stakeholder in all international football affairs and decision-making.”

Al-Khelaifi was an active member of ECA for many years before. However, a significant milestone came in 2019 when he was elected to one of ECA’s two seats on the UEFA executive committee, which further cemented his influence in European football. Two years later, in 2021, Al-Khelaifi was elected chairman of the ECA after former Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, a supporter of the European Super League, stepped down. In 2023, Al-Khelaifi was re-elected, extending his chairmanship of the ECA until 2027.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L), PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi (C), and UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin (R) at a UEFA Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Club Brugge. Al-Khelaifi clearly understands how sport can be used in expanding Qatar's diplomatic network and has also on several occasions met with current French president Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Anadolu / Getty Images

Nasser Al-Khelaifi stands out among many other sports leaders. Unlike many of his peers, he not only occupies powerful positions within sports, he is also deeply entrenched in Qatar's political landscape and enjoys significant trust from the royal family.

Al-Khelaifi holds key positions such as Minister of State of Qatar, chairman of Qatar Sports Investments, and board member of the Qatar Investment Authority – the sovereign wealth fund of the State of Qatar –and thereby exerts a level of decision-making authority and political influence that distinguishes him from other sports leaders. Moreover, along with his roles at UEFA and ECA, he is also the chairman of BeIN Sports, a pivotal player in terms of television rights, which further enhance his and Qatar's sphere of influence.

  • Minister of State of Qatar

  • President of Paris Saint-Germain

  • Chairman of BeIn Media Group, owners of beIN SPORTS, MIRAMAX and Digiturk

  • Chairman of Qatar Sports Investments, owners of Paris Saint-Germain

  • Board member of Qatar Investment Authority

  • Member of UEFA Executive Committee

  • Board member of French Professional Football League

  • Chairman of European Club Association

  • Member of the organising committee for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar

  • Board member of Premier Padel

  • President of the Qatar (Padel) Tennis, Squash and Badminton Federation

  • Global ambassador for The Youth Sports Games

  • Chairman of the PSG Foundation

  • Member Friend of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety

The many suspicions of corruption and wrongdoings

Nasser Al-Khelaifi tenure has been marred by multiple allegations and legal battles over the years. In May 2019, Parisian prosecutors charged Al-Khelaifi with corruption related to a 3.5 million US dollar payment for organising the World Athletics Championships in Qatar.

This payment was made by Qatar Sports Investments to Pamodzi Sports Consulting, a Senegalese-based sports marketing firm led by Papa Massata Diack, the son of the late president of World Athletics Lamine Diack. In return, it was claimed that Qatar secured Lamine Diack's support for hosting the event.

French courts claimed jurisdiction due to an alleged meeting at the Hotel Negresco in Nice and the transfer of 2 million US dollars into a French account. While the case was ongoing, Al-Khelaifi was elected to UEFA’s executive committee, and in 2023 the charges were eventually dropped. Doha lost to London in its bid for the 2017 World Athletics Championships, but staved off competition from Eugene and Barcelona to secure the event in 2019.

In February 2020, Swiss federal prosecutors charged Al-Khelaifi in connection with a broader bribery investigation linked to beIN Sports and the 2026 and 2030 FIFA World Cup television rights. However, in October 2020, Al-Khelaifi was cleared of the charges by a Swiss court. While former FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke was found guilty of forging documents related to the TV rights, Al-Khelaifi celebrated his acquittal calling the verdict a "total vindication".

The legal troubles didn't end there. In 2022, Al-Khelaifi was acquitted for a second time in a retrial concerning allegations of allowing Jérôme Valcke to use a vacation home in Sardinia rent-free, a property purchased by a Qatari company.

In 2023, French police raided the home of Nasser Al-Khelaifi as part of an investigation into claims of detention and torture in Qatar. French-Algerian Tayeb Benabderrahmane filed a complaint in January 2023, stating he was arrested in January 2020 in Qatar, where he had moved to work as a lobbyist.

Benabderrahmane alleged he was detained for six months and interrogated about documents believed to be compromising for Al-Khelaifi. Initially placed under house arrest, he said he was allowed to leave Qatar in November 2020 after signing a non-disclosure agreement. The status of this case is unknown.

The allegations notwithstanding, in February 2024, Al-Khelaifi was re-elected to UEFA’s executive committee for a four-year term, extending his tenure until 2028 and further solidifying his influential position in world football.

Financial fair play violations

PSG and Nasser Al-Khelaifi have also faced multiple accusations of breaching UEFA’s financial fair play (FFP) rules over the years. The financial scrutiny began in 2014 when PSG were fined 60 million euro for rule breaches, though two-thirds of that amount was suspended.

In 2018, PSG were cleared of any wrongdoing following an investigation triggered by their 400 million euro spending spree on Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in August 2017.

However, in 2022, PSG were ordered to pay an unconditional 10 million euro for not complying with "break-even" rules, with the potential for an additional payment of 65 million euro depending on future compliance. The break-even requirement mandates that clubs must not spend more than their income and must balance their books.

Neymar poses with his new jersey next to Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaif

Neymar poses with his new jersey next to Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi after a press conference on August 4, 2017, in Paris. Neymar signed a 5-year contract for 222 million euro. Photo: Aurelien Meunier / Stringer / Getty Images

BeIN Sport's growing relationship with UEFA

Al-Khelaifi has also managed to place himself in a key role on the other side of the table where broadcasting rights are negotiated.

In 2014, Al-Khelaifi oversaw the transformation of the Qatari state-owned Al Jazeera Sport into beIN SPORTS and took over the roles as chairman and CEO of beIN MEDIA GROUP.

From its start in 2012, beIN Sports has acquired numerous TV rights deals across a wide range of sports, including football, athletics, basketball, tennis, cricket, equestrian, and motorsport. In 2022, Play the Game mapped beIN Sports' extensive television rights portfolio which highlights its expansion in the sports broadcasting landscape.

Since 2019, when Al-Khelaifi was elected to UEFA’s executive committee, beIN Sports has strengthened its relationship with Europe’s football governing body, which raises concerns about a potential conflict of interest. Al-Khelaifi’s dual role as a member of UEFA’s executive committee and chairman of beIN Sports creates a situation where decisions could be influenced by overlapping interests.

Key deals showcasing this relationship include:

  • 2021: UEFA announced an agreement for beIN SPORTS to exclusively broadcast UEFA's top club competitions across the Middle East and North Africa from 2021/22 to 2023/24.

  • 2023: beIN SPORTS secured exclusive rights to UEFA national team events for 24 MENA countries, covering the UEFA Nations League Finals, UEFA European Championship Qualifiers, and the UEFA European Under-21 Championship. This builds on existing deals, including the exclusive broadcasting rights for UEFA EURO 2020, UEFA EURO 2024, the UEFA Nations League, and all European qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup 2022.

These deals underscore beIN Sports' powerful position in sports broadcasting but also highlight the problematic nature of Al-Khelaifi’s potential influence within both UEFA and beIN Sports. This conflict of interest raises questions about the fairness and integrity of broadcasting rights negotiations and the broader governance of European football.

The embodiment of conflicts of interest

Nasser Al-Khelaifi embodies a significant conflict of interest. As a Minister of the State of Qatar, his presence on the UEFA ExCo contradicts the fundamental principle that sports organisations must maintain independence from governmental influence, a cornerstone of their integrity and operational ethics.

Sitting on UEFA’s executive committee, whilst serving as club president of PSG, and holding a prominent position on the board of directors of the French Football League (LFP), Al-Khelaifi often handles interests from multiple sides of the table, which creates a highly favorable situation for himself and helps him advance Qatar’s agenda through and within sports. BeIN Sports also have the international rights for the French Ligue 1.

Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), where Al-Khelaifi holds a board position, owns around 10% of the hospitality giant Accor. QIA has two seats on Accor’s board of directors. In 2019, PSG announced a multi-year sponsorship deal with Accor, which makes them the club’s principal sponsor and replaces Fly Emirates as the club’s shirt sponsor.

In 2022, the year Qatar hosted the FIFA World Cup, PSG switched its shirt sponsor to Qatar’s state-owned flag carrier, Qatar Airways, in a multi-year deal. Since QSI's takeover of PSG, the club has forged numerous partnerships linked to Qatar, and the list of prominent sponsors now include state-owned Visit Qatar, Ooredoo, beIN Sports, Aspetar, and Qatar National Bank.

UEFA’s engagement with Qatar

UEFA has also increasingly engaged with the State of Qatar in recent years. In February 2021, just months before the postponed EURO 2020 was set to take place, Qatar Airways was announced as an official sponsor.

This announcement came amidst a sense of urgency, possibly linked to the sudden absence of Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company, SOCAR, from the sponsor list. With just four months until the first match of UEFA’s flagship event, it prompted UEFA to act swiftly. One can only speculate whether Nasser Al-Khelaifi leveraged his contacts in Qatar or his role as minister in the country to facilitate such a significant sponsor deal.

It is also noteworthy that this deal happened during the most heated debate in international sports politics in many years: The controversies surrounding Qatar as host for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. This seemed to play no role for the executives in UEFA.

Qatar's engagement in international sport

Qatar Airways, the state-run airline of Qatar, serves as a symbol of the nation’s comprehensive sporting strategy, in which the airline plays a key role. It reflects the evolution of football into a geopolitical battlefield, a notion underscored by Qatar's meticulous timing leading up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Here, the world's premier footballers like Messi, Neymar, and Mbappe proudly represented Paris Saint-Germain, adorned in the jersey emblazoned with one of the country's prides, the renowned and famous airline, Qatar Airways.

The awarding of the World Cup to Qatar in 2010 and QSI’s acquisition of PSG in 2011 in many ways marked the beginning of Qatar's entry into the international football market. This has included sponsorships from Qatar state-owned companies for FC Bayern Munich, AS Roma, FC Barcelona, Inter Milan, Arsenal, Boca Juniors, as well as the football associations like CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA and FIFA.

Yet, Qatar's sporting influence transcends football. State-owned entities such as Qatar Airways, Ooredoo, Qatar Tourism, BeIN Sports, and Qatar National Bank are visible across various sports, including basketball (NBA), tennis, handball, equestrian events, esports, motorsports, and beyond.

Explore Play the Game's mapping from 2022 for a comprehensive overview of the involvement of key Qatari companies in global sports.

Sponsor wall

Visit Qatar is one of the main sponsors of the upcoming UEFA EURO 2024. Photo: Stuart Franklin / UEFA / Getty Images

Since then, UEFA’s relationship with Qatar has only deepened. Visit Qatar, the main arm of Qatar Tourism, with the mission to promote and expand tourism in Qatar, is now an official sponsor of UEFA national team football and the official tourism partner of UEFA EURO 2024 and 2028. This ongoing partnership along with Nasser Al-Khelaifi highlights the substantial influence Qatar wields within European football’s governing body.

Despite numerous accusations of alleged corruption and conflicts of interest, Nasser Al-Khelaifi remains at the top of European football and has been and still is a crucial figure in Qatar's (sports) political strategy. His close ties to the Emir and unwavering loyalty to the royal family highlight his importance in advancing Qatar's sports and political agendas.

In Qatar, such high-profile positions are typically reserved for those who serve the state's political ambitions, and Al-Khelaifi's roles reflect his integral place within the regime's broader objectives.

And what is the response from other leaders in European and international football who routinely praise transparency, good governance and sport’s independence from state authorities?

The silence regarding Qatar’s man in Europe is deafening.

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