Doha (AFP) – The young players of PSG’s academy in Doha performed a range of drills under the watchful eyes of their mostly French coaches as the fierce Gulf sun set on the horizon.
Their side’s Champions League triumph against Leipzig, taking them through to Sunday’s final against Bayern Munich in Lisbon, was on the lips of several students.
“My expectation is PSG are going to win 3-1, hat-trick from Neymar,” said Yassine el-Samman, 11. “But Bayern are a fantastic team.”
Samman, like others at the under-12s training session, said his family were newcomers to the dominant French side.
“I was watching a match with my dad once. He told me there was this club he didn’t know about called PSG. And I saw them play really well, so we decided to watch more of them.”
The academy opened to fanfare in January 2019 at an event attended by PSG superstar Neymar and first team coach Thomas Tuchel.
Open to boys and girls aged between five and 16, it operates across four sites, charging 2,000 riyals ($550, 465 euros) per month.
PSG’s network of more than 70 similar academies worldwide is a key part of its ambitious, Qatari-funded project to expand its appeal globally and secure a place in the top echelon of world football.
“It’s important to promote our brand, but not only that. It’s about values too,” said academy technical director Cyril Klosek.
“PSG is already one of the best brands in the sports industry, we develop branding, merchandising and these academies.”
– Premier League rivals –
Twenty-two youngsters in immaculate dark-blue PSG jerseys performed a range of dribbles and passes, sporting Qatari shirt sponsor Ooredoo telecom, rather than the principal branding of French hotelier Accor.
While the hardcore of PSG’s support in the country were gathered at the training ground, the club is working to appeal to football fans in Qatar more widely.
“Most of the (students) knew PSG, but maybe less than English Premier League clubs or Spanish clubs. But we talk a lot about the club’s history,” said Klosek.
PSG’s academy network is the cornerstone of the club’s global ambitions as well as complementing Qatar’s aim of becoming a footballing powerhouse by the time of the World Cup in 2022 which it will host.
The Doha outpost, which trains 1,000 youngsters, a third of whom are Qatari, gives the people of the super-wealthy Gulf emirate the opportunity to share in Qatar’s flagship sporting investment.
Several PSG stars have visited in past years for winter training camps — and fan selfies.
The academy also supports Qatar’s strategy to cultivate home-grown talent ahead of 2022 with one player from the PSG academy sent to Paris for trials.
Despite owning the club through Qatar Sports Investments, PSG’s following in Qatar pales in comparison to the popularity of English Premier League heavyweights like Manchester United and Chelsea.
– Qatar’s largesse –
“PSG was keen to set up training camps in Qatar, which contributed to strengthening their popularity in Doha,” Qatar-based sports journalist Hossam Nabawy told AFP.
“Certainly winning the Champions League would contribute greatly to increasing Paris’ popularity in most parts of the world, not just Doha.”
But it is Liverpool that enjoys the perhaps the most spirited support in Qatar where its Egyptian talisman Mo Salah is revered by the 300,000-strong contingent of his expat countrymen. Qatar’s total population is just 2.75 million.
During the Club World Cup in Doha in December 2019, thousands of local Liverpool supporters joined forces with travelling fans to watch their victorious campaign.
Qatar Reds have almost twice as many followers on Facebook as the PSG Fans Club Qatar, and the largely expat membership would gather to watch Liverpool fixtures before coronavirus.
But Qataris themselves have warmed to PSG since their country acquired it in 2011, experts say.
“Qataris have become inclined to support the team after its acquisition by Qatar and the presidency of Nasser al-Khelaifi who (helped) the team reach the Champions League final for the first time,” said commentator Mahmoud Nsiri.
Away from PSG’s academy and branded stores in a prominent mall and at the airport, there is little in Doha to suggest PSG has displaced the likes of Liverpool.
But it is clear that many among PSG’s new generation of supporters have been lured by the club’s string of bank-busting signings, a direct result of Qatar’s largesse.
When asked why he supported PSG, one young supporter shopping in the club store ahead of Sunday’s final said simply: “Neymar”.
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