Doha (AFP) – The next few days promise to be intense for Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chairman of Paris Saint-Germain and arguably the most recognisable face behind tiny Qatar’s global sporting rise.
On Tuesday night he will take his seat in the Presidentielle Stand at the Parc des Princes for the first leg of the crucial Champions League last 16 tie against Barcelona.
After that he will fly to his hometown of Doha to the more sedate surroundings of the Khalifa International Tennis Stadium, where five of the top-ranked seven women players in the world are vying to win the Qatar Open.
A key figure in football, the dapper 43-year-old is possibly less well-known outside his own country as president of the Qatar Tennis Federation.
In France, he has regularly been pictured with PSG stars such as Edinson Cavani and even once holding a first team shirt with former defender David Luiz after his transfer from Chelsea.
Like most Qataris, he maintains a discreet public profile at home, far more visible in Paris than in Doha, where he is as familiar for his role in tennis as for his ties to PSG.
And it is to tennis that he owes his sporting career. On a recent power list of Qataris, he made seventh spot — below the head of Qatar Petroleum but above of the boss of Qatar Airways — and his occupation was listed as “sports”.
A former professional, he played in the Davis Cup and once against the 1995 French Open champion, Thomas Muster.
He may have only reached a career-high ATP ranking of 995, but those who played him say he was talented.
– Sporting power –
And it was through tennis that he met Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, a path that would eventually lead to PSG. Qatar’s 2011 purchase of the French champions pushed this seemingly shy man into the spotlight.
One year after winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, it was another statement of Qatar’s sporting ambitions.
It also demonstrated Qatar’s business acumen in raising the country’s profile, which has had various knock-on effects including a huge rise in the number of French tourists to the emirate.
But PSG’s stuttering form this season — they are currently second three points behind Monaco — has led to the first sustained criticism of Khelaifi.
One person close to PSG said he made mistakes by giving “certain key players too much power” during the club’s transition in appointing a new coach and losing star names such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Those closest to him though say PSG are beginning to look strong again and deny rumours that he could be replaced if they lose to Barcelona.
Leaving PSG is definitely not an option, one official told AFP this week, for one of the most powerful men in football who also happens to be the head of film and television group, Miramax.
Getting locals in Qatar to speak on the record about him, or other prominent individuals can be tricky.
Despite the extraordinary wealth of Qatar, Khelaifi’s family, prior to the Gulf country finding vast gas an oil riches off of its coast, were “gawas” — pearl divers. His family were involved in the industry — one of Qatar’s staples before energy — for many generations.
It may sound romantic but it was a brutal job.
Divers spent months away from home at sea, survived on rations and risked their lives to get enough pearls to ensure their families had money for the winter.
The Khelaifis are not alone among the now most prominent Qatari families to have worked in the industry.
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