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Neymar’s record-breaking deal is as much about prestige as eye-popping cash figures

Neymar celebrates after scoring a goal against Paris St. Germain during their Champions League Group F soccer match at the Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona, December 10, 2014.

ALBERT GEA/REUTERS

If there was ever a question about what Gulf oil money means in the world of sport, witness the record-smashing deal this week for Brazilian soccer superstar Neymar.

On Thursday, Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain said it was paying FC Barcelona €222-million ($330-million Canadian) to acquire the 25-year-old forward, widely acknowledged as one of the best players in the world.

The transfer fee was more than double the previous record of £89.3-million ($147-million Canadian) that Manchester United paid for French midfielder Paul Pogba in 2016. To put it into perspective, $330-million could cover the Toronto Blue Jays and Maple Leafs' combined annual player payrolls, and still have plenty of change left over.

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With no caps on transfer fees and soaring revenues, the amount that top-tier soccer clubs are willing to pay for star players has been leaping upward over the past decade. Driven by valuable broadcast deals, revenue across the big five European leagues – in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France – grew by $2.1-billion, or 12 per cent in 2016. Last year, PSG alone saw revenue increase 8 per cent to $776-million, representing 35 per cent of Ligue 1's entire revenue that year.

Making money, however, has never really been the driving force behind pricey player transfers, said Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan and co-author of the book Soccernomics.

"Professional soccer clubs have operated in a somewhat different way than the major-league sports in the United States and Canada, where the major-league sports are clearly motivated by profits. The history of soccer is that nobody seems to be too worried about whether they make any money or not, it's mostly about glory and championships," Szymanski said.

Since 2011, PSG, France's top club, has been owned by Oryx Qatar Sports Investments, which is controlled by Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.

"Clearly, for the Qatari owners, this is a small petty-cash payment as far as they're concerned," Szymanski said.

"Paris has done well in the Champions League in the last few years, and [acquiring Neymar] might mean they can actually win it, which would clearly be a hugely prestigious achievement for Qatar," Szymanski said.

The Neymar deal, moreover, may have as much to do with global politics as making money off the beautiful game, said Szymanski, "particularly with the dispute that's ongoing between Saudi Arabia and Qatar." The tiny Gulf state is embroiled in a standoff with its powerful neighbour, which accuses it of supporting terrorism and has blockaded land access.

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"You could see Neymar as gift from Qatar to France," said Simon Kuper, a Financial Times journalist and co-author, with Szymanski, on Soccernomics. "Qatar always needs friends as it's in a difficult neighbourhood, and France is still a big power in the UN Security Council."

France and Qatar have a long-standing relationship rooted in sport, Kuper explained. Along with owning PSG, the Qatari royal family controls beIN Sports, a subsidiary of the Al Jazeera Media Network, which holds the rights to broadcast Ligue 1 and UEFA Champions League matches on French Television. France also played a major role in helping Qatar secure the 2022 FIFA World Cup – a vote now marred in controversy, with French investigators reportedly investigating former French president Nicolas Sarkozy for allegedly profiting off his assistance securing Qatar's winning bid.

Even if the deal is mostly a soft power play by Qatar, Neymar's inflated price tag may still make some economic sense, said Alex Duff, co-author of Football's Secret Trade: How the Player Transfer Market was Infiltrated.

"These days only a few players can really make an impact in terms of marketing. It reminds me of David Beckham and his skillful team of marketers. When Beckham came to Real Madrid in 2003, sponsorship sales went way up and merchandizing went up almost 60 per cent," Duff said.

"Neymar is probably as good as anyone to boost the club's profile. He's in the top three with Ronaldo and Messi, and he has a lot more years in front of him," he added.

Ligue 1 has yet to take advantage of international broadcasting in the same way as England's Premier League, and PSG has significant room to grow internationally with Neymar as the club's new global face. Moreover, with viewership expanding online, ultra-celebrities such as Neymar could bring in even more cash.

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"What we're now seeing is the role of social media, which is truly global, and the potential to monetize the global attention that these individuals generate. If you can monetize the clicks and followers on Twitter and Facebook, there might be a lot of money in it," Szymanski said.

Does this mean we're likely to see more deals like this? Perhaps not in the next few years, Szymanski said. But the trend upward, driven by oil money or not, is a story as old as the sport.

"If you go through the newspapers every year back to about 1900 or so, you will find stories about how insane the prices are that are being paid to hire players, transfer fees, wages, and so on. And every generation is outraged by the growth," Szymanski said. "This seems to be just another example of that. Everybody is outraged, and in five years time we'll be double this level and people will be outraged again."

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