PSG owner’s corruption charge raises bigger questions for European football

24 May 2019

Photo: Getty Images French prosecutors have announced that Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi (centre) is under investigation for corruption. He denies the charges.

French prosecutors charge Qataris sportsbroker with corruption. Nasser Al-Khelaifi says that the payments were a non-refundable deposit for the event’s commercial rights.

Nasser Al-Khelaifi under investigation by Swiss and French authorities.

Possible implications for broadcast deals and sports politics.

James Corbett

French prosecutors have announced that Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is under investigation for corruption in a move that potentially holds wider implications for European football. 

The charges, which Al-Khelaifi denies, relate to Qatar’s bids to host the 2017 and 2019 track world championships.

As well as holding the PSG presidency, Al-Khelaifi sits on the boards of both UEFA and the European Club Association (ECA) as well as serving as the chairman of one of football’s largest TV rightsholders, BeIN, and Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), which is linked to the Qatari government.

The charges raise yet more questions for UEFA and the ECA, who are currently allied in a battle to control the future of European club competitions.  Since October 2018 Al-Khelaifi is under separate criminal investigation in Switzerland, where both bodies are domiciled.

Suspect payments

In the French investigation, the CEO of beIN, Yousef Al-Obaidly, was also handed preliminary charges of corruption, while former IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) president Lamine Diack is also being probed for “passive corruption” in the same case.

The case facing PSG president Al-Khelaifi is based on documents showing that Pamodzi, a company owned by one of Diack’s (The former IAAF president) sons, received two payments totalling $3.5million from Oryx, a Qatar Sports Investments owned company, days before the vote to host the 2017 IAAF World Championships. Oryx, was set up to handle the sponsorship and rights for Qatar’s bid.

Avoid a doping ban

Qatar eventually lost to London but was later awarded the 2019 World Championships. Diack’s son, Papa Massata Diack, a former IAAF marketing consultant, has since been banned for allegations of extorting money from a Russian marathon runner to avoid a doping ban before the 2012 Olympics and is subject of an Interpol wanted notice.

Al-Khelaifi has denied thosee accusations and voluntarily met with the Swiss authorities.

Al-Khelaifi’s lawyers have said the payments made by Oryx were transparent and were simply a non-refundable deposit for the event’s commercial rights if Qatar’s bid was successful.

In that event a further $29million would have been payable. They further claim that Pamodzi has paid $3.2million of the Oryx payment back to master rights holders, Dentsu and the IAAF.

Tainted business

The new charges again call into question Al-Khelaifi’s judgement.

Last October Swiss prosecutors named him a criminal suspect in a case in which he is accused of bribing the former FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke to secure World Cup 2026 and 2030 TV rights for BeIN. Al-Khelaifi has denied thosee accusations and voluntarily met with the Swiss authorities.

The Qatari had previously been in negotiations to buy the South American rights company, Full Play, until its founders were found to be among those charged for paying millions of dollars in bribes for rights to TV contracts in the US Department of Justice’s FIFA corruption investigation.

Owed him millions for his vote

During testimony in the subsequent trials in Brooklyn, the Qatar 2022 World Cup was referenced on several occasions by witnesses and defendants.

One witness testified that Julio Grondona, the late head of the Argentinean FA a senior vice president of FIFA, had complained that the Qataris owed him millions for his vote.

Qatar 2022 has repeatedly denied wrongdoing in its successful bid to host the World Cup. 

High influence

What happens next in the French case may hold wider implications for a game in which Al-Khelaifi has become one of its key power brokers.

In February he was appointed as one of the ECA’s two representatives to the UEFA Executive Committee, where his influence has been felt as the two bodies collaborate to reshape the future of European club competition. His possible withdrawal – whether involuntary or not – may impact this debate.

Questions have also been raised – most recently by this publication – about QSI’s willingness to keep pumping money into PSG. Could this development shift the debate further towards a strategic withdrawal?

Moreover, sensitivity about Qatar’s image at a time when it is embroiled in a significant regional conflict with its neighbours, may force a rethink about its overall role in football if wrongdoing is proven.

Given its expansion into the game in the past decade, this could encompass any part of Al-Khelaifi’s portfolio: club ownership, broadcast rights holder, or political power-broker.