For years, soccer in Paris has been the hub of Qatar’s global ambitions. Through its ownership of the city’s biggest team, Paris St.-Germain, Qatar has dreamed big, spent big and won big. In doing so, the country has also used the sport’s popularity to enhance its profile on the world stage.
It may soon have some competition.
On Monday, a second Gulf dynasty entered the city’s soccer scene. Paris F.C., a team that plays in France’s second tier, announced that the Kingdom of Bahrain had bought a minority stake in the club.
[📝COMMUNIQUE] – Le Royaume du Bahreïn nouveau partenaire stratégique du Paris FC.
Toutes les informations ⬇#ExploreBahrain
— Paris FC (@ParisFC) July 27, 2020
The purchase price and the investors’ ambitions appear, for now, to be more modest than Qatar’s cash-soaked efforts, which have turned P.S.G. into a perennial French champion and one of Europe’s most formidable teams. But Paris F.C.’s immediate goal is clear: to reach France’s top division, Ligue 1, in the next three years and to lift its women’s side “as high as possible” in the top tier.
Team officials also left little doubt about Bahrain’s goal: As at P.S.G., the owners hope the soccer team will act as a billboard for the Gulf state, and attract tourists to a nation that is still reeling from the reputational damage it sustained when the country’s monarchy put down pro-democracy uprisings during the height of the Arab Spring.
“I think they saw a fantastic opportunity for investment, and Paris F.C. is a good tool of communication to promote the country,” Fabrice Herrault, the director general of the team, said in an interview. As part of the agreement in which Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund took a 20 percent stake in the club, Paris F.C. will, starting next season, have the words “Explore Bahrain” emblazoned on its uniforms.
The National Communication Centre in Bahrain did not respond to requests for comment, sent through its embassy in the United Kingdom, about the kingdom’s investment in Paris F.C. or about claims by multiple groups and even its citizens that it has engaged in human rights abuses in crushing antigovernment protests.
By investing in soccer, Bahrain is following its Gulf neighbors down a well-trodden path. Qatar has owned P.S.G. since 2011, and the billionaire brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates has spent lavishly to assemble one of the best teams in the world at Manchester City in England. A Saudi Arabian prince owns another Premier League club, Sheffield United, and that kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has bid to buy a third, Newcastle United. Gulf owners also control teams in Spain and Belgium.
Those direct investments, and related ones over the pirating of television rights controlled by Qatar’s beIN Media Group, have at times made European soccer a battleground in the diplomatic war between Qatar and several of its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
“They join us for many objectives — mainly to help them to spread the image of Bahrain in France and Europe,” Herrault said.
That image has yet to recover since the 2011 uprisings by members of the country’s Shiite Muslim majority against the Sunni Muslim ruling family. To put it down, the authorities were accused of torturing hundreds of people taken into custody during the crackdown, among them protest leaders but also professionals, like doctors and athletes, who had sympathized with the demonstrators. The country’s action even became an issue for FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, when a powerful official from Bahrain ran for the organization’s presidency in 2016.
In 2019, the fate of the former national team player Hakeem al-Araibi drew global headlines when Bahrain attempted to have him extradited from Thailand, where he had been detained while on his honeymoon. Araibi had fled to Australia after the Arab Spring protests but was jailed, at Bahrain’s urging, when he arrived in Thailand; he was eventually released and returned to Australia only after an international outcry.
Bahrain, a key ally of the United States in the Persian Gulf, had pledged to carry out reforms in the wake of the violence, but since then, most of the country’s leading dissidents have been forced into exile or sent to prisons where, human rights groups say, torture and other abuse are common.
“My first thought was this is another attempt by Bahrain to whitewash its horrific rights record and another way of buying influence in Europe,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
Alwadaei was jailed after taking part in pro-democracy protests and fled to the United Kingdom after his release. Bahraini authorities revoked his citizenship in 2015.
Herrault, the Paris F.C. executive, declined to discuss the allegations of human rights abuses.
The soccer investment is not Bahrain’s first foray into international sports. The country has hosted 15 Formula One Grand Prix races, the first in 2004, and has a professional cycling team that competes in the Tour de France. It has also naturalized some elite foreign athletes, notably middle-distance runners from Africa, to compete in its colors at Olympic Games and world championships. Campaign groups like Amnesty International have long argued that these actions were designed to change public opinion of Bahrain.
In Paris F.C., Bahrain has invested in a team with a curious history. The club was born in 1969 before splitting in two three years later, with the other half becoming Paris St.-Germain. Paris F.C. languished in the amateur ranks for years until the owner Pierre Ferracci, a businessman with close links to President Emmanuel Macron of France, oversaw its most recent rise through the professional ranks.
Ferracci’s plan, now buttressed by Bahrain’s millions, 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 France’s 2018 World Cup-winning team. But until two years ago, when Paris F.C. received a coveted license to run an academy, P.S.G. had the only accredited youth development program in the region.
“This region is like a gold mine,” Herrault said, though he added that the club was not looking to rival P.S.G., which he described as “an ocean away.”
While P. S.G. has spent heavily on established stars like the Brazilian Neymar, the Paris-born Kylian Mbappé and others, Paris F.C.’s means mean it will have to temper its aspirations, even as it announced that the new investment would allow it to increase its budget by 30 percent.
“Our objective is not to win the Champions League,” Herrault said. “It is to be promoted to Ligue 1 and stay there for many, many years and to have one of the best academies in France and in Europe.”