For years, football in Paris has been the centerpiece of Qatar’s global ambitions. Through the ownership of the largest team in the city, Paris St.-Germain, Qatar dreamed big, spent big and won big. In doing so, the country has also used the popularity of the sport to improve its profile on the world stage.
He may soon have some competition.
On Monday, a second Gulf dynasty entered the city’s football scene. Paris FC, a team that plays in France’s second tier, announced that the Kingdom of Bahrain had acquired a minority stake in the club.
The purchase price and the ambitions of the investors seem, for now, to be more modest than the drenched efforts of Qatar, which have transformed the PSG into a perennial French champion and one of the most formidable teams in Europe. But the immediate goal of Paris FC is clear: to reach the top French division, Ligue 1, in the next three years and raise its female part “as high as possible” to the highest end.
The team officials also left little doubt about Bahrain’s goal: as at PSG, the owners hope that the football team will act as a billboard for the Gulf state and will attract tourists to a nation that is still recovering. from the reputational damage it suffered when the country’s monarchy repressed revolts for democracy during the height of the Arab spring.
“I think they have seen a fantastic investment opportunity and Paris FC is a good communication tool to promote the country,” said Fabrice Herrault, general manager of the team in an interview. As part of the agreement in which the Bahrain sovereign wealth fund has acquired a 20 percent stake in the club, Paris FC, starting next season, will have the words “Explore Bahrain” stamped on its uniforms.
The National Communication Center in Bahrain did not respond to requests for comment, sent through its UK embassy, on the Kingdom’s investments in Paris FC or on requests from multiple groups and even its citizens to have committed human rights violations in the repression of anti-government protests.
By investing in football, Bahrain is following its Gulf neighbors along a well-trodden path. Qatar has owned the PSG since 2011 and the billionaire brother of the UAE ruler has spent generously to bring together one of the best teams in the world in Manchester City in England. A Prince of Saudi Arabia owns another Premier League club, Sheffield United, and the sovereign wealth fund of that kingdom has decided to buy a third, Newcastle United. The Gulf owners also control the teams in Spain and Belgium.
“They join us for many purposes, primarily to help them spread the image of Bahrain in France and Europe,” said Herrault.
That image has yet to recover from the 2011 riots by members of the country’s Shiite Muslim majority against the Sunni Muslim ruling family. To silence him, the authorities were accused of torturing hundreds of people taken into custody during the crackdown, including protest leaders but also professionals, such as doctors and athletes, who had sympathized with the demonstrators. The country’s action even became a problem for FIFA, the governing body of world football, when a powerful Bahraini official ran for the presidency of the organization in 2016.
In 2019, the fate of former national team player Hakeem al-Araibi attracted global headlines when Bahrain attempted to have him extradited from Thailand, where he had been detained on his honeymoon. Araibi had fled to Australia after the protests of the Arab Spring but had been imprisoned, at the urging of Bahrain, when he had arrived in Thailand; he was eventually released and returned to Australia only after an international protest.
Bahrain, a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, had pledged to carry out reforms in the wake of the violence, but since then most of the country’s main dissidents have been forced into exile or sent to prisons where, human rights groups say torture and other abuses are common.
“My first thought was that this is yet another attempt by Bahrain to whiten his horrific record on rights and another way of gaining influence in Europe,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of defense of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. .
Alwadaei was imprisoned after taking part in the anti-democratic protests and fled to the United Kingdom after his release. Bahrain authorities revoked his citizenship in 2015.
Paris FC manager Herrault declined to discuss allegations of human rights abuses.
Investment in football is not Bahrain’s first foray into international sport. The country has hosted 15 Formula 1 Grand Prix races, the first in 2004, and has a team of professional cyclists participating in the Tour de France. He also naturalized some elite foreign athletes, in particular middle distance runners from Africa, to compete in his colors at the Olympic Games and world championships. Campaign groups such as Amnesty International have long claimed that these actions are designed to change Bahrain’s public opinion.
In Paris FC, Bahrain has invested in a team with a curious history. The club was born in 1969 before dividing in two three years later, with the other half becoming Paris St. Germain. Paris FC languished for years in the ranks of amateurs until owner Pierre Ferracci, a businessman with close ties to French President Emmanuel Macron, oversaw his most recent rise in the professional rankings.
Ferracci’s plan, now supported by millions of Bahrain, is to establish the team as one of the best proving grounds in France and beyond. Half of all domestic players in France’s top two divisions come from the Paris region, as did a third of the 2018 World Cup French team. But until two years ago, when Paris FC received a coveted license for running an academy, the PSG had the only accredited youth development program in the region.
“This region is like a gold mine,” said Herrault, although he added that the club was not looking to compete with PSG, which he described as “a distant ocean.”
While PSG has spent a lot on established stars such as Brazilian Neymar, Parisian Kylian Mbappé and others, the means of Paris FC mean that it will have to temper its aspirations, although it has announced that the new investment would allow it to increase its budget. 30 percent.
“Our goal is not to win the Champions League,” said Herrault. “He must be promoted to Ligue 1 and stay there for many, many years and have one of the best academies in France and Europe.”