News analysis

Neymar a huge coup for Qatar's bid for 'soft power'

It is, by some distance, the biggest transfer in football history. Not just because of the eye-watering £199 million (S$354.8 million) fee Paris Saint-Germain must pay Barcelona, or the £515,000-a-week wages after tax.

It represents something bigger: the fabulously gifted Neymar as the ultimate pawn in the geopolitical chess game that these days serves as a discomforting backdrop to elite sport.

It seems quaint to reflect how, less than a decade ago, we would talk of a club's heightened ability to "sell shirts" on the back of a high-profile acquisition. Neymar can sell shirts all right, but he will also be expected, in figurative terms, to move mountains - not just for PSG but for the Qatari regime behind the French club.

For all the attempts to depict this as a transfer driven by Neymar's desperation to escape Lionel Messi's shadow at Barcelona or to enhance his prospects of winning the Ballon d'Or, there is something far, far bigger at play here.

Of course the Qataris in charge of PSG want on-pitch success, but reflected glory is merely a means to a far greater end.

As with the Abu Dhabi-driven project at Manchester City, the Qatari vision is about trying to win friends and influence people in a highly uncertain geopolitical climate.

For a microstate with a population of 2.57 million, Qatar has acquired an extraordinary influence over elite sport in the past decade.

The Neymar deal reflects how the game is driven not just by money but, increasingly, by other factors on a global scale. He is a wonderful footballer, but, to PSG's owners, he is another status symbol, another vanity purchase.

It has hosted high-profile golf and tennis tournaments, but above all it has sought and bought influence in football, most notably by sponsoring Barcelona, buying PSG and persuading a discredited Fifa regime to allow it to host the 2022 World Cup.

All of this has been based on what experts call "soft-power" strategies, buying up headline-grabbing sporting or cultural assets to build influence and spread a vision of its place in the world long after the hydrocarbon reserves run out.

Even more so than the signings of David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Angel di Maria, the capture of Neymar would transform perceptions of PSG and thus - in the owners' long-held view - of Qatar.

Neymar might have been the third member of Barcelona's mesmerising "MSN" strikeforce (Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar), but, at 25, he is five years younger than the other two and widely regarded as the player who will be the world's best once time catches up with Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo.

Neymar is also a commercial phenomenon, whom Manchester United, among others, would love to have got their hands on. If Paul Pogba is regarded as a "brand", then Neymar, who has almost 10 times more followers on Twitter and Facebook, is on another level entirely.

The Neymar deal reflects how the game is driven not just by money but, increasingly, by other factors on a global scale. He is a wonderful footballer, but, to PSG's owners, he is another status symbol, another vanity purchase.

Do not try to make sense of it by reference to market forces, equating Neymar to eight Jordan Pickfords or four Kyle Walkers. The people behind this head-spinning transfer are playing a different game.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2017, with the headline 'Neymar a huge coup for Qatar's bid for 'soft power''. Print Edition | Subscribe