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Top European football boss goes to war with FC Barcelona

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ISTANBUL — FC Barcelona’s financial gymnastics must face a crackdown, according to European football’s most powerful executive.

In an exclusive interview with POLITICO, Qatari tycoon Nasser al-Khelaifi, who is the president of Paris Saint-Germain football club, said the sport’s European governing body UEFA was set to probe Barcelona, after its controversial summer sale of commercial assets.

The debt-riddled Catalan club raked in hundreds of millions of euros this summer by selling future TV rights and chunks of its digital content arm to investment funds and a crypto firm. The sell-off allowed Barcelona to spend big on top new players, while also complying with Spanish football’s stringent financial rules.

But critics — with al-Khelaifi at the front of the line — have accused Barcelona of recklessly selling off its family silver, possibly breaching European football’s financial regulations and setting a dangerous precedent.

“Is this fair? No, it’s not fair … Is it legal? I’m not sure,” al-Khelaifi said of Barcelona’s asset sale, suggesting regulators would investigate. “If they allow them, others will do the same,” he said. “UEFA of course have their own [financial] regulations. For sure they’re going to look at everything.”

The remarks represent an escalation in the ongoing feud between PSG and the Spanish football establishment, whose domestic league is threatening to complain to the EU over PSG’s Qatari state-backed ownership, which pumps in astronomical sums of money.

Al-Khelaifi carries immense clout due to his multiple high-profile roles — as PSG boss; European Club Association chairman; chairman of influential Qatari broadcaster beIN Media Group; and UEFA executive committee member.

Speaking to European club bosses on Friday, al-Khelaifi had already indirectly criticized Barcelona by saying: “The new financial sustainability rules are a positive development. But we need to be careful. Dangerous levels of debt and magical equity deals are not a sustainable path.”

The Qatari executive’s ire has been sparked particularly by Barcelona selling 25 percent of its unprofitable digital content arm for €100 million to a firm managed by the founder of Mediapro, which two years ago triggered a crisis in French football by defaulting on TV rights payments.

Barcelona declined to comment. UEFA said: “All clubs participating in UEFA club competitions are monitored in accordance with UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Sustainability Regulations. Decisions on compliance are taken by the independent Club Financial Control Body (CFCB).”

‘Think outside the box’

President of Paris Saint-Germain football club Nasser al-Khelaifi said the sport’s European governing body UEFA was set to probe Barcelona, after its controversial summer sale of commercial assets | Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

Al-Khelaifi made his comments in an interview at the opulent Çırağan Palace Kempinski hotel in Istanbul, where the ECA gathered last week for its general assembly. He expanded on a range of subjects including the future of football in Europe, accusations that his multiple roles in the game represent a conflict of interest, and the prospect of a Super League 2.0.  

As part of an attempt to grow the sport of football, the ECA invited Formula One’s CEO to speak at the general assembly. Al-Khelaifi was excited by the prospect of football looking at new ideas from motor-racing, a sport that has exploded in popularity thanks to its partnership with Netflix.

“We have the best and the biggest and most popular sport in the world and we need to think outside the box,” he said. For example, European football could leverage its most prestigious matches to create a multi-day “holiday destination that people would love to go to,” complete with music and conferences as part of a wider entertainment product.

Cities would need to pay for this, he added, “like they do in Formula One today,” generating a financial windfall for clubs.

But “we should also be careful what we’re changing in football,” he cautioned, “because we need to respect our fans.” It was the sport’s supporters who were the primary opposition to the controversial Super League proposal for a club competition to rival the UEFA Champions League, which quickly collapsed.

Conflict complaints

In common with other senior ECA officials to whom POLITICO spoke, al-Khelaifi was dismissive of the Super League returning in a new guise — regardless of whether it wins its Court of Justice of the EU case against UEFA alleging an illegal monopoly — due to the massive popular backlash the rebel league suffered on launch in April 2021.

“I’m really confident that no one will allow Super League to happen,” al-Khelaifi said. “We need to think about everyone, not just ourselves. The Super League was just about themselves,” he said, adding that he would “never” join such a project.

Critics of al-Khelaifi accuse him of being conflicted by his various top roles, most significantly through his position as chairman of beIN Media Group, which spends millions for TV rights to screen French football and UEFA competitions.

Pressed on this, al-Khelaifi hit back: “When there’s trouble, they need me, I’m there to help. Nobody sees any conflict.” He insisted there wasn’t one instance in which he’d “leveraged or taken advantage” of his position.

Al-Khelaifi pointed out that in the marketing joint venture between the ECA and UEFA, external agencies had been appointed to control selling TV rights around the world. “Nasser is not the one going in the market and selling the rights,” he said. “But we’re pushing them to increase the price. My interest is to secure the maximum for my club and our [ECA] clubs. If anything, it’s damaging for beIN when ECA drives up rights costs.”

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