The quarter-finals of the Uefa Champions League, currently under way, confirm some old truths: Three Spanish sides show that La Liga is alive and kicking, two teams from Germany offer proof of the Bundesliga’s revival, and the absence of an English team from the last eight underscores the fact that the English Premier League’s (EPL’s) top sides are in varying stages of transition and were not good enough to make the cut.

Beyond that, though, lies an interesting theme: the growing influence of the Gulf states on the top-most levels of world football. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Málaga are both owned by Qatar-based businesses and Barcelona’s shirt sponsors, the Qatar Foundation, contribute approximately $40 million (around 218 crore) to the club’s annual revenue.

It’s not just Qatar. PSG’s jerseys sport the Emirates logo, which can also be found on the jerseys of AC Milan, Hamburg and Arsenal—whose stadium is also named for the Dubai-based airline. Emirates is a significant off-field player in the Fifa World Cup and a huge name in global sports sponsorship but is being pushed by its “noisy neighbour", Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi, which reaped quick returns on its purchase of Manchester City when the club won the EPL in 2012. Then there’s the small matter of 2022, when Qatar will host the Fifa World Cup.

Perhaps the Gulf is already the centre of the footballing world—seemingly having edged out its wealthy rivals, the oligarchs of eastern Europe. The Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, who made their money through oil and minerals, offer tough competition—the benefits of existing on the fringes of global consciousness, and with decades of practice at Soviet inscrutability. The oligarchs have serious money too—Samuel Eto’o, the world’s highest-paid footballer at approximately $25 million a year, plies his trade for a club called Anzhi Makhachkala, owned by billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, in the republic of Dagestan. In nearby Ukraine, the Donbass Arena, one of the venues for Euro 2012, is home to a club (Shakhtar Donetsk) owned by Rinat Akhmetov, the richest Ukrainian. Alisher Usmanov is a significant stakeholder in Arsenal FC and Roman Abramovich’s billions have taken Chelsea to its most successful period ever. But the political instability behind the erstwhile Iron Curtain is a huge deterrent—many oligarchs are exiles, often fighting each other or the government, and one of them, Boris Berezovsky, died in the UK last month having lost much of his fortune in a lawsuit against Abramovich last year.

Things are more stable in the Gulf but, as with all arrivistes, its growing influence has bred some unease among football’s traditional powers. There is always disquiet about new money; for example, when former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra bought Manchester City in 2007, questions were raised over his human rights record, and there were similar concerns over Ukraine co-hosting Euro 2012.

What people really think about Qatar was revealed, in farcical circumstances, by The Times’ “story" last month about a “Dream Football League" to be held in that country from 2015; it was eventually proved to be a fake, but by then it had evoked shock and horror in the establishment for its power to disrupt, at the least, the order of things. The “story" was about an annual league, involving 24 of the world’s top clubs, to be held in the Qatari summer; the prize money for each participating club would be around $350 million per two-year cycle. The effect on club calendars, on Euros and even World Cups, would be devastating even if some bank accounts swelled.

For better or worse, the story turned out to be a hoax, but is it really that outlandish or unviable? The lessons of the Indian Premier League (IPL), which spoke in a similarly preposterous financial language and which has forced the established cricket calendar to adjust to its rhythms, are too raw and recent. The Times’ story was “scooped" by respected football writer Oliver Kay who, in raising the following question, illustrated why the league could work: “Why is a desert nation with a population of less than two million willing to spend such mind-boggling sums in an attempt to add club football to a portfolio of sporting events that already includes ATP and WTA tennis tournaments, the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters golf, an IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) Diamond League athletics meeting … as well as, most prestigious of all, the 2022 World Cup?"

Kay’s question—the answer, for him, is that “Qatar wants more"—reveals the influence Qatar wields across all sport, and, through trade relations (and Al-Jazeera), at the highest levels of various European governments. In football alone, it can count on the considerable influence of Barcelona; Zinedine Zidane is an official ambassador for the 2022 Fifa World Cup and David Beckham is on the payroll of PSG. Then there are the national federations which voted for Qatar to host the World Cup. If help were needed, the United Arab Emirates—with major investments in football, horse-racing, rugby, Formula One, cricket—can pull the various strings it holds.

The real story concerns the 2022 Fifa World Cup—when will it be held, will Qatar keep its promise to relax its strict laws (governing, among others, drinking and homosexuality), and will the growing number of critics be satisfied? A summer World Cup, as is mandated, will require unprecedented infrastructure and spending just to make it possible to stage any football (and even then the matches will have to be staged after 8pm). A winter World Cup can only be possible if the European football season is turned upside down, and if other sports bodies—notably the International Olympic Committee, whose Winter Olympics could be affected—cooperate. At stake are reputations, egos and billions of dollars—not to mention the health of footballers and fans who will be subjected to the desert summer heat. Qatar have the ball but the pitch is slippery, their teammates, Fifa, are uncertain and divided, and the crowd is hostile.

So begins a game of football that may well define the sport’s future.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

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