By JOHN LEICESTER AP Sports Columnist
PARIS (AP)—Soccer star, fashion icon, ambassador for Britain, friend to Hollywood stars – David Beckham is many things. To that list, he could soon add player in Middle East politics.
Should he accept a sheik’s ransom to finish his career in France, the soccer star won’t simply be coming to boost shirt sales for Paris Saint-Germain or to score and create goals for the team whose emblem features the Eiffel Tower.
Beckham would also be lending his face to Qatar, the Gulf state which owns PSG and is using sports to become even more famous than he is. It would be a coming together of two brands: Beckham, already recognized globally, and Qatar, which wants to be.
Qatar, a desert peninsula that pokes thumb-like into the Persian Gulf and is slightly bigger than the Caribbean island of Jamaica, is fortunate to sit on the world’s third-largest reserves of natural gas and on lakes of oil.
Its misfortune is that its region is volatile and a theater for competing global interests. It has giant neighbor Saudi Arabia hanging on its shoulder and Iran just across the waters of the Gulf. If Iran and the West came to blows, Qatar could be caught in the middle.
Which is where Beckham comes in. Qatar is using the globally understood language of sports – notably soccer, the most global sport – to put itself on the map, to buy friends and influence not only in the world’s corridors of power but in its households, too.
The purchase of PSG, Qatar’s winning bid to host soccer’s World Cup in 2022 and its investments in other sports ventures are not simply part of Qatar’s forward-thinking efforts to secure alternate revenue before fossil fuels run out.
They are not designed solely to encourage Qataris to partake in sports instead of just watching them on their flat-screen TVs, nor merely vanity buys by wealthy sheiks outshining each other.
Instead, experts say, Qatar is using sports to build itself into a globally recognized and respected brand.
Qatar used to be known for being unknown. But Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, also relatively small and backing onto the Gulf, and the potentially hostile geopolitical environment in which they live, have demonstrated to Qatari leaders that anonymity isn’t their smartest policy option.
Becoming a player in sports is part of Qatar’s efforts to anchor its future and security, not unlike the way in which a pufferfish swells into a ball to appear bigger and more formidable to predators.
“A defense by popularity, so to speak,” said David Roberts, deputy director of the Qatar branch of RUSI, a British security think-tank.
“If you are going to be invaded by someone it seems to me that you want people to know damn well where you are,” Roberts said in an interview. “You don’t want people to go, ‘Qatar? There’s a country that begins with a ‘Q’? Where’s that? Never heard of it.”
Should he join PSG, Beckham would be expected to bring worldwide attention and boosted revenue through merchandising and perhaps new sponsorship to Paris’ only major soccer club, which is being pressured to quickly up its ante and produce results by its Qatari owners who bought a controlling stake in May.
French media reported that President Nicolas Sarkozy, without playing a direct role in the takeover, looked favorably on the sale, not least because it pumped much-needed funds into the club he supports.
Sarkozy has nurtured French relations with Qatar’s ruling family and he has ties with PSG shareholder Sebastien Bazin.
Sarkozy spokesman Franck Louvrier, asked by The Associated Press, denied any knowledge of whether the president used his influence to bring the parties together. Luc Dayan, who was involved in a 2006 effort by Qatar investors to buy PSG, said the purchase couldn’t have happened without French political backing.
“A takeover like that in France, where everything is very politicized, cannot happen without political agreement at the highest levels,” Dayan, former president and main shareholder of the Lille soccer club, said in an interview.
The fund that bought a 70 percent stake in PSG is controlled by Qatar’s crown prince, Sheik Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.
That, said Dayan, made this a “more political and strategic investment” than the Qatari takeover in 2010 of another struggling European club, Malaga, in Spain. The buyer then was Sheik Abdullah Bin Nasser Al Thani, who is a member of Qatar’s ruling clan, but isn’t closely related to the prince or his father, the nation’s emir, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani.
So while it may appear from the outside that Qatar is making a land-grab in European soccer, its investments are not necessarily coordinated and unified.
“These are groups of different parts of the Qatari elite which are almost competing with each other to try to buy into Brand Qatar,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an expert on Gulf politics at the London School of Economics, said in an interview. “There’s a lot of very ambitious sheiks with a lot of money looking enviously around and seeing this guy’s done this, this guy’s done that, how can I get a slice of the action?”
Beckham, on an Asian tour with his club, the Los Angeles Galaxy, is keeping people guessing about his intentions.
Re-signing with the MLS Cup winners would spare his family from being uprooted from Los Angeles. But PSG, which reportedly is offering millions, could offer a final bumper paycheck and chance to show, at 36, that he can still compete in a European league, perhaps furthering his hopes of playing for Britain at next year’s London Olympics.
“I’m very proud of the time that I’ve spent with the Galaxy and it might continue,” he said this week. “I think at the end of the day I have a big decision to make, but I obviously haven’t made one yet.”
Leonardo, part of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning squad and former Inter Milan coach brought in by the Qataris to oversee PSG’s drive for European success, has made all the right noises about how Beckham isn’t too old to play in France’s Ligue 1.
But, in truth, while PSG will hope that Beckham’s right foot can still conjure up his trademark free kicks and pinpoint crosses, he is too slow and fragile now to produce match-winning performances week-in, week-out.
But that won’t matter so much if his star power helps lure other players to PSG and, most importantly, drives up interest in France and internationally in both PSG and the French league, which lags behind those in Spain, England, Germany and Italy.
Beckham’s biggest value to Qatar lies in his glamor which would marry nicely with Paris’ fame as the capital of chic, not in his fading soccer skills.
“David Beckham is bigger than sport. He is an ambassador, a brand, an example for others,” PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi told French sports newspaper L’Equipe in November, before adding: “He is also and still a very good footballer whose age isn’t a problem.”
Al-Khelaifi is also a director at Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based broadcaster. Around the same time that PSG’s takeover was completed, Al-Jazeera bought rights to broadcast French league games in France and internationally.
It will pay $43 million per year from 2012 for overseas broadcasts and $121 million to broadcast two games per round, on Fridays and Sundays, in France. If PSG does well on the field and that, combined with the lure of Beckham, attracts viewers, it could be win-win for Qatar.
At first glance, PSG isn’t an obvious business opportunity. It doesn’t own its stadium, the Parc des Princes. It lost $30 million loss in the 2009-2010 season, it hasn’t won the French league since 1994, it’s a dwarf compared to giants such as Manchester United, Real Madrid or Barcelona.
But buying success in France should be cheaper than it would have been if Qatar had bought a club in the English Premier League, where competition is fiercer, or in Spain, where Madrid and Barcelona have a lock on the championship and the television revenues.
At PSG, Qatar’s business plan involved spending massively this summer on players who should be good enough to qualify the club for the Champions League, where there’s big money. The purchases included a record sum, reportedly $60 million, for Javier Pastore, a 22-year-old midfielder from Argentina.
The spending has brought instant clamor for results. A run of four games without a win heading into Sunday’s match against Auxerre felt like a crisis for PSG although, in fairness, it is too early to judge how competitive the expensively assembled team really is.
“Economic success will be realized if the club is regularly in the Champions League and at the same time conquers international markets, that’s to say exploits its international potential and manages to develop revenues from merchandising and from selling rights internationally,” Dayan said.
“The potential of PSG has never been exploited before now because the sporting results have never been good or, at best, very mediocre and so the commercial potential has never been exploited to the full. If that is what happens now, it will be a good deal. If not, it will cost a lot of money.”
But, ultimately, Qatar’s bottom line may not be whether it makes money from soccer, which is difficult to do, but rather how well soccer sells Brand Qatar.
Qatar has plenty of other diversified investments – that should keep it rich in a post-oil world. But money in sports should keep Qatar’s name on everyone’s lips, especially if Beckham is its super-salesman.
“These (ventures) are the ones that will get the entire world talking about Qatar and that is a core part of their branding,” Ulrichsen said. “They are thinking really big. They are ambitious enough, may be too ambitious in some ways. But for them, the sky is the limit.”
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester