You might never see Paul Cezanne’s 'The Card Players' curl in a free kick from 30 yards. But the painting that was sold in 2011 for a world record sum has plenty in common with the purchase by Paris Saint-Germain of Neymar this week.
Behind both, Qatar.
The Cezanne propelled Qatar into an exclusive club and it has done it again with Neymar; the prestige of dominating the market, of capturing what is out of reach for anyone else.
The $250m for “The Card Players” and the €222m for Neymar represent the kind of money that is a drop in the ocean for Qatar. It is seeking to transform itself to a cultural and sporting hotspot in line with the Qatar National Vision 2030 - by which time the ruling Al-Thani family expect to have a sustainable and balanced economy.
The tiny giant of the Arabian Peninsula has spread its influence far and wide. One day there will be no oil and gas left in the region and Qatar’s ruling family is determined to get the country ready for that eventuality. In art and in sport – predominantly football – this process of diversification is well under way.
Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is the sister of the new Emir and chairwoman of the Qatar Museum’s Authority. She is largely responsible for its dominance in the art market. She commands an annual budget said to be around $1 billion and oversaw the purchase of 'The Card Players'. It has since been beaten into second place on the most expensive list by Willem de Kooning’s 'Interchange' which Ken Griffin bought from David Geffen for $300m in 2015.
Nonetheless, Qatar in September 2014 broke the $200m mark again by purchasing 'When Will You Marry?' by Paul Gauguin for an estimated $212m. The QMA has established world-class museums and gallery spaces in Doha under the Sheika's direction with the aim of making it the regional hub for art and culture. Complaints have been made in the art world that Qatar’s involvement has only served to drive up the prices of artwork – much like its involvement in the football transfer window blows any other competing club out of the water.
For influence, for soft power and for prestige, Qatar is now the biggest player in the world’s art market and among the top operators in football as well.
Nobody needs to be reminded the seismic shift the awarding of the 2022 World Cup caused in Fifa and beyond. Tied to the vote which moved the world’s most famous football tournament to the desert was the purchase of PSG by Qatar Sports Investments.
Michel Platini and Nicolas Sarkozy – the former Uefa and French presidents respectively – could hardly have foreseen at that infamous December 2010 lunch at the Elysée Palace. Sarkozy wanted Qatar to buy PSG and he wanted Platini to cast his World Cup vote for Qatar. Both came to pass.
The lunch was attended by Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani - now Emir of Qatar - that they were setting in motion the chain of events that would culminate one day in one of the world’s most recognisable players joining PSG.
Neymar’s signing has been in the works at least since last summer when he ultimately was convinced to give it another year in the shadow of Lionel Messi. It is likely now, however, that he will not only play for PSG but for Qatar. Their World Cup is only five years away and Neymar – 30 when that tournament comes around – is destined to be its top attraction.
Qatar spared no expense in having Zinedine Zidane, Pep Guardiola and Gabriel Batistuta promote the World Cup bid and Neymar is sure to be the face of the games in the lead up. He will be used to project an image of Qatar that is high-quality, western-facing, successful and sportingly inclined.
These are difficult times for Qatar, despite its seemingly bottomless wealth. An alliance of neighbouring countries have placed it under tough economic sanctions since the start of June, with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia accusing Qatar of funding terror and meddling in domestic politics. Qatar’s only land border remains shut and prices have risen for items like food and medicine.
The timing of the purchase is perhaps surprising given the scale of the Qatar sanctions and the collapse in oil prices. World Cup developments have been scaled back and the 2022 budget has been cut.
But what better time to make an impact like this than when your back is up against the wall? Neymar might not know much about the geopolitical tension he has just become part of but that doesn’t preclude the fact that he is now part of it. No matter the extent of the diplomatic war against Qatar, no story on that topic could possibly eclipse the impact made with Neymar.
Over the next decade and a half, Qatar will attempt to position itself as a sporting and cultural centre. Its focus on western artwork and now the world's most popular game is designed to present it as open and enlightened.
Qatar casts a long shadow for such a small place.