The September 2012 issue of the redoubtable World Soccer – a publication that is, with every new edition, increasingly resembling the Economist – contains a fine feature on the very different fortunes of two Qatari-owned European football clubs, France’s Paris Saint-Germain (‘PSG’) and Spain’s Málaga Club de Fútbol (‘Málaga CF’). Two Sides of the Same Coin, co-authored by Howard Johnson and the excellent Sid Lowe, illustrates in some detail how petrodollars are transforming PSG into the elite club that – aside from brief periods in the 1980s and 1990s when the likes of Safet Sušić, George Weah and Leonardo Nascimento de Araújo sported the iconic Parisian red-blue – it has never really been; the same sudden withdrawal of natural gas cash from the Málaga CF coffers is threatening to render that club just another minor footnote in the history of association football.
Reading the section on Málaga CF, however, we were left with a sense of unease: the sudden disappearance of owner Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani – the Qatari royal who has apparently pulled the plug on the Andalucian Dream – was treated as a little too surprising, with explanations of varying persuasiveness (including Al Thani’s failure to procure a licence for a massive construction project at Málaga port) proposed for his withdrawal.
Indeed, while the specific reason(s) for Al Thani’s apparent de facto departure from Málaga CF are seemingly yet to be revealed, there is no shortage of very concrete reasons for anyone in his position to abandon ship:
1. The Duopoly. Arguably more than at any time in the history of La Liga, Real Madrid Club de Fútbol (‘Real Madrid’) and Futbol Club Barcelona (‘Barcelona’) have realised a duopoly of the winners’ podium, with no other club having their name engraved on the league trophy since Valencia Club de Fútbol in 2004. While gaining entry to the UEFA Champions League has been relatively straightforward for Málaga CF, it has nevertheless involved Al Thani sinking c.£120m into the club; to seriously threaten Real Madrid and Barcelona may require a figure in the billions of euros in transfers, salaries and stadium construction costs.
2. Ruination. A likely recent realisation of the invisible Qatari is that there is no real economic case for Spanish football as it is currently constituted: with combined debts to the tune of around €1.5bn, Real Madrid and Barcelona owe their continued existence to political reasons rather than business ones. Presumably without a local financial institution to bail his club out in the event of insolvency, Al Thani may well have thought better of trying to compete on this absurdly uneven and unsustainable playing field.
3. The End of Spain? When Al Thani purchased Málaga CF in June 2010, it could conceivably have looked to some like a reasonable project: the purchase of a relatively cheap asset which could be augmented and transmogrified over time into the number one club in the south of Spain. However, with the job-free Spanish economy now heading beyond all reasonable doubt into a state of implosion, it no longer makes any sense to throw money at an entity which is likely to decline in value – perhaps to an alarming degree – in the context of a centre-periphery conflict which may even see the end of the Kingdom of Spain in its current form. If the Gulf plenipotentiary is cashing in his chips, could anyone really blame him?