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Oil money and its impact on European football

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•Roman Abrahamovich

By DAVIDSON ABRAHAM

Football is undisputedly the most popular sport in the world and with this popularity comes a lot of money through investment. These investments come from oil rich countries through state-owned investment firms and rich oligarchs who made their wealth from oil, which has gone on to become known as ‘Oil Money’.

Depending on who you ask, some football fans feel that oil money investments are ruining football while others especially the fans of Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain will tell you it’s a good thing and that they have no issues with it.

Oil money came into European football for the very first time when Russian oligarch, Roman Abrahamovic, purchased Chelsea in 2003, and is believed to have paid around £140 million ($233 million at the time) for the club. Since buying Chelsea in 2003, Abrahamovich has invested more than £1 billion ($1.4 billion) into making the club the global power house it has become today. 

With a total of 21 trophies won from 2003 including winning the Premier League in 2004, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2017 and two UEFA Champions League titles, Chelsea has been the most successful English team since Abrahamovich arrived at the club. They have established themselves as one of Europe’s elite sides, as well as experiencing a period of dominance in the domestic competitions.

The next big oil money investment came in 2008 when Abu Dhabi Prince Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan purchased a struggling Manchester City; the start of an ambitious project that has transformed English football in the last 12 years. This 2008 deal made City the richest club in the world and set them on the path to domination. The club had played in the second tier of English football as recently as 2002 but won the Premier League title in 2012, 2014, 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022.

In 2011, just three years after Sheikh Mansour took over Manchester City, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar bought PSG for €100m through Qatar Sports Investments (QSI). PSG have spent over €1.3bn on player transfers since the summer of 2011 which includes the €222m signing of Brazilian superstar Neymar making him the most expensive footballer in the history of football to date and the €180m purchase of French wonder boy, Kylian Mbappe which made him the most expensive teenager in history. 

These massive expenditures have translated in PSG’s domination of French football having won eight of the last 11 league titles from 2011 to 2022 including an unprecedented four titles in a row from 2013 to 2016. Despite the capital clubs domestic success, PSG is still yet to bring home the coveted UCL trophy.

The Impact of oil money investments from super wealthy Arab nations and mega rich oligarchs has changed football in a way or two; seen by rival fans as buying success. These investments have engendered a kind of transfer of power from the old guard to the new money clubs at least in domestic competitions. While these clubs, most notably Manchester City and PSG, offer competition in the domestic scene in their initial years under these rich owners, they tend to totally quash competition in the years that follow. This is made evident by the fact that Abu Dhabi owned Man City made the Premier League that was already regarded as one of the most competitive leagues in European football even more competitive by gradually becoming title contenders alongside the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal.  After four years of trying, they finally went on to win their first league title of the 21st century in 2012, and in 2014, they added a second league title in three years to their cabinet.

The following three years witnessed another “Oil Money” club in the form Chelsea winning two out of a possible three League titles from 2015 to 2017. What followed Chelsea’s brief dominance has been Manchester City absolutely killing the competition in the world’s most competitive football league. The following season, City won the league as ‘Centurions’, earning a record 100 points and establishing themselves as one of the best ever sides in Premier League history. 

Manchester City also began a run of four-straight League Cup wins as they retained the Premier League title in the following season, also winning the FA Cup and two Community Shields. By May 2022 the Manchester based club had won four league titles (2017/18, 2018/19, 2020/21 and 2021/22) out of a possible five with Liverpool (2019/20) being the only club apart from City to win the title in the last five years.

While at Paris Saint Germain, it has been a totally similar but easier story. The 2011 takeover by QSI made PSG not only the richest club in France but one of the wealthiest in the world. They have gone on to become a team capable of winning the UEFA Champions League and French football’s biggest name as pledged by Club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi in 2011; the Parisians have dominated French football, consequently. 

Despite finishing behind Montpellier in the 2011–12 season, the first league crown in the Qatari era came to Paris in the 2012–13 season driven by star player Zlatan Ibrahimović, team captain Thiago Silva and famous manager Carlo Ancelotti.  During the season, PSG completed the signing of David Beckham. Zlatan’s 30-goal haul almost single-handedly led the capital side to its first Ligue 1 title in 19 years, and third overall. They also became a regular in the knockout stages of the Champions League. 

Big money signings continued with the arrival of Edinson Cavani in 2013 for a league record of €64 million, making it the sixth largest transfer in history and David Luiz in 2014 for a £50 million transfer fee, a world-record transfer for a defender. The following season, the Parisians claimed their first domestic treble (Ligue 1, Coupe de la Ligue and Trophée des Champions), before claiming an unprecedented national quadruple (Ligue 1, Coupe de France, Coupe de la Ligue and Trophée des Champions) twice in a row in 2014–15 and 2015–16, winning the latter with a record-breaking 96 points, becoming the only first French team to achieve that feat.

After loosing the Ligue 1 title to AS Monaco and suffering the now famous “La Remontada” in the 2016/17 season, they would respond by showing that they were the new kings of the European transfer market scene by splurging a whopping €402 million on Neymar and Mbappe, breaking the records for the  most expensive player in history and the most expensive teenager in history in the process. Since then Lille is the only club apart from PSG to win the French Ligue 1.

While UEFA Champions League glory still eludes these clubs, football fans feel it’s only a matter of time before they eventually win it and cement their place in the pantheon of European football history given that they’ve both reached the final of the competition in recent years. Ironically, they reached the final in two consecutive years (PSG 2020 & Man City 2021) losing to Bayern Munich and Chelsea respectively.

It is not all doom and gloom, however; sponsors and media companies will agree with me. Nike for example, will have Neymar, Mbappe, Messi and Ramos in a commercial without paying anything extra. Bein Sports does not even have to advertise to get football fans to subscribe to their TV. Fans are already appetised by the prospect of watching the most skilled player in the world (Neymar), arguably the greatest footballer of all time (Messi), and one of the best footballers in the world (Mbappe) every week in they subscribe. 

These “Oil Clubs” have also reduced excessive spending as UEFA has become stricter in their Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. These clubs have been able to strategically undermine UEFA’s FFP rule through inflated sponsorships and other crooked means. UEFA has upped its game and cracked down on some clubs who have violated the FPP’s code of conduct. The eight clubs were AC Milan (ITA), AS Monaco (FRA), AS Roma (ITA), Beşiktaş JK (TUR), FC Internazionale Milano (ITA), Juventus (ITA), Olympique de Marseille (FRA) and Paris Saint-Germain (FRA) .This list unsurprisingly included PSG who were fined €65 million out of which they must pay €10 million unconditionally.

In conclusion, “Oil money” in football has its pros and cons. It has done damage to the European football ecosystem in a way or two, and also broken numerous stereotypes. For example, before PSG forked out a staggering €222 million to sign Brazilian superstar, Neymar, from Barcelona, it never seemed possible that a club could or would buy out a player’s release clause. Over in England, Manchester City’s rise came in handy to keep the competitiveness of the Premier League at a time when it was seemingly dominated by only Chelsea and Manchester United. While the beginning of the Qatari Era saw the end of competitiveness in French football in PSG, it gave them a super club, which the country was lacking (giving the nation’s footballing pedigree) in the decade (2000s) leading to the takeover of the club.

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