Why Qatari Owners of Paris’ Soccer Team Hanker For Aging Englishman Beckham

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Cheryl Ravelo / Reuters

Los Angeles Galaxy's David Beckham fights for the ball against Emelio "Chieffy" Caligdong of the Philippines national football team Azkals during their friendly match at the Rizal Memorial football stadium in Manila December 3, 2011.

Why does perennially under-performing Paris Saint-Germain of France’s anemic professional soccer league see hiring a fading star at over $1 million per month as vital to assuring its future? Because the aging player in question is David Beckham, whose marketing and financial allure is considered as important as his footballing skill by PSG’s Qatari owners. And even if Beckham’s representatives are denying reports that the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder has come to an unofficial agreement with PSG, there are reasons to suspect the resurgent rumors may yet come to fruition. After all, the Paris club is only one part of a mix with which Qatari VIPs are looking to boost the Emirate’s prestige through the world’s most popular sport. And despite his advancing age and slowing gait, Beckham remains not only one of the biggest global draws in the game—but just the kind of meta-star capable of mesmerizing celebrity-crazed, sports-fickle inhabitants of Paris.

French media was again abuzz Wednesday with reports that the 36-year-old Beckham has agreed to sign an 18-month contract with PSG once his Galaxy deal expires Dec. 31. According to dailies le Parisien and l’Equipe, Beckham has accepted a league-topping $1.05 million monthly salary whose total value could be nearly doubled by $22.3 million in performance bonuses—most of those based on Beckham’s merchandizing potential, rather than footballing potency. Indeed, in addition to Beckham’s iconic and hunk status that’s expected to broaden PSG’s appeal to a far wider base of Parisians (a population infamous as fair weather fans who demand big matches, lots of glitz, and the likelihood of victory to even start caring much about sports), the association with the former England hero might well allow Paris Saint-German to finally establish a true brand identity abroad. And that, it’s hoped, could mean millions in new income from PSG jerseys selling alongside the likes of Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona merchandize in foreign markets–particularly in Beckham-mad Asia.

Meanwhile, while the so-called Spice Boy may not have all the physical reserves and technical skills that made him one of the globe’s most renowned players in his Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Bend It Like Beckham heyday, his recent play with Los Angeles and AC Milan has shown he still has what it takes to confound opposing defenses—and at times make the decisive pass or score the goal to turn fortunes around for his team. That’s no small detail for PSG, which while enjoying relative success in French cup competitions (13 victories since the club’s 1970 founding) has often seen its bid for French league championships thwarted by otherwise formidable sides lacking leadership, losing focus, and seeing entire seasons undone by a single goal missed or taken at the worst possible time. The Paris club hasn’t won a title since 1994 (one of just two in its history), and—apart from a 1996 victory of the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup–has mostly floundered when it has managed to qualify for European competitions. Even if an added asset like Beckham wouldn’t be a guarantee of league titles (PSG is currently tied for first in points, but ranked second on goal difference), his presence could help Paris re-establish its regular presence among the top three finishers in league play—a requisite for the prestige, massive exposure, and added income of Champions’ League play.

None of that is lost on Nasser al-Khelaifi, chairman of Qatar Sports Investments that bought a 70% stake in PSG last May for an undisclosed amount (though probably not a lot: the club’s total losses over the last decade exceed $356 million–$28.2 million and $24.9 million for the past two seasons alone). Since taking over as PSG’s president, al-Khelaifi has proven he’s willing to spend money in order to turn the club’s sporting and financial results around. First, he lured former Brazilian star Leonardo from Italian club Inter Milan to serve as PSG general managers. Together, al-Khelaifi and Leonardo signed an array of new players for a total of $52.4 million, before recruiting Argentinean striker Javier Pastore from Parma for $59 million. As its current position at the top of the standings suggests, those acquisitions have helped. But they haven’t turned the corner towards the big time al-Khelaifi foresees for PSG: a fixed spot among Europe’s footballing elite, and the TV and merchandizing riches they enjoy. Which explains the appeal of a multi-faceted income asset like Beckham in taking the Paris club to another level—which is more wrapped up in revenue than wins and losses as such.

“Our objective is to participate in the Champions’ League for the next three seasons, and after we want to become a very competitive club in Europe” al-Khelaifi told l’Equipe recently, without detailing any hopes about how soon he hopes to see PSG advance into the big time of Champions’ League knock out rounds—much less a final. “Our investment is long term, and we hope to be profitable again within three to five years.”

Why bother with lowly Paris, especially when his Qatar Sports Investments could probably buy clubs in Europe’s better English, Italian, Spanish, and even German leagues? Because Qatari roads to Europe (or at least its football pitches) pass through France—with which the Emirate also enjoys particularly close political, military, and business relations. Qatar was the only Arab country to actively assist with the international air intervention in Libya—an operation French President Nicolas Sarkozy spearheaded. Sarkozy—who, not incidentally, a serious PSG fan—also reportedly supported and lobbied for Qatar’s long shot, but ultimately successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Sarkozy is also reportedly keen on al-Khelaifi using his leadership of PSG to shape looming renovations to the club’s southern Paris Parc des Princes stadium ahead of the France-hosted 2016 Euro Championships, and turn the drab, bunker-like venue into must-see soccer complex capable of attracting fans from around the world.

But the footballing activities and ambitions of al-Khelaifi (and Qatar) don’t end there. Less than a month after Qatar Sports Investments took its controlling stake in PSG, al-Khelaifi used his role as president of Qatar’s al-Jazeera Sports channel to purchase broadcast rights to two French league matches per week for four seasons—the first such acquisition by a foreign media to televise images back to French fans. Al-Jazeera Sports followed that up this month by obtaining French broadcast rights for  Champions’ League matches for three seasons. The downside for al-Jazeera Sports is that, in both cases, the rights it bought cover only a minority of matches. A far greater number of games (and often more dramatic clashes) of both French pro and Champions’ League remain the property of French pay station Canal Plus, which has placed marquee soccer and other sports rights at the heart of its premium line up for nearly three decades. Previous attempts by French rivals to break Canal Plus’ lock, moreover, have failed rather miserably (a large reason why al-Jazeera Sports found itself alone to challenge Canal Plus without other bidders in the first place).

But beating Canal Plus in the battle French and Champions’ League rights over the next decade is probably less important to al-Khelaifi’s strategy than two others objective he may be putting greater focus on. The first is gaining experience and international recognition for al-Jazeera Sports as a quality broadcaster of top-flight soccer in the run-up to Qatar’s 2022 World Cup—when the channel will oversee coverage for the entire globe. The second will be establishing a sufficiently broad range of soccer activity and influence to be able to finance and otherwise assist his plan of transforming PSG from a frequently floundering also-ran in a second-tier pro league into a leading light of European soccer. According to some experts, that will require an annual budget of between $262 million and $393 million that other European heavyweights command—three to four times PSG’s current level.

Revenues from Champions’ League participation would contribute towards that. But as Manchester, Real, Arsenal, Milan, Barcelona, and other mighty clubs in Europe have shown, establishing a team as a brand name–and selling its jerseys and other merchandize–around the globe promises far, far more riches still. Which is why Beckham is key for PSG and al-Khelaifi’s plans both on and off the pitch: when it comes to name recognition, glamour, and appeal to trendy football fans, no one can bring it like Beckham. Plus, the man can still just play.