The symbol of the Champions League trophy, the famous European Cup that has been handed out to the continent’s best teams since the 1950s, has been in the sights of Man City and PSG for years. For over 10 years, to be exact. That’s how long the two clubs, both owned by the sovereign wealth funds and royal families of oil-rich Gulf states, have targeted European dominance.
Between them, over £2 billion has been splurged on world class players in the transfer market. Countless managers have been hired and fired while infrastructure projects have seen stadiums redeveloped and training grounds built. All this has been to turn Man City and PSG into footballing superpowers.
There is plenty to unite Man City and PSG, but the Champions League semi final they will contest against each other on Wednesday night will be played amid a bitter political dispute between the two Gulf states that own the pair. This fixture will be about much more than just football.
Diplomatic relations in the Gulf have been tense for some time. In 2017, the United Arab Emirates, whose president is the half brother of City owner Sheikh Mansour, severed ties with Qatar, whose sovereign investment arm owns PSG, amid accusations of terrorism. This resulted in a trade standoff between the two countries.
These tensions spilled over into football during a 2019 Asian Cup semi final between Qatar and UAE when national anthems were booed and objects were thrown on to the pitch. Diplomatic ties were officially restored in January this year, yet tension is still evident. Either side remains suspicious of the other.
This added another layer of political nuance to the ill-fated European Super League proposal, with PSG refusing the chance to join as one of the member clubs. Qatar has used PSG as a vehicle to ‘sports-wash’ the country’s, and its leadership’s, reputation in the public eye and anticipated how badly a breakaway league would be received. City, however, did not and were among the 12 founding members.
The European Super League debacle has allowed PSG to increase its power at the top of the sport with club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi subsequently replacing Andrea Agnelli as chairman of the European Club Association (ECA). Al-Khelaifi was also re-elected to UEFA’s Executive Committee.
PSG played their cards well, while Man City have been left to face the fallout of a situation they never needed to implicate themselves in. Whether or not either side’s focus has been shaken by the events of last week will be tested on Wednesday night. It would ironic if, after attempting to free themselves from UEFA’s clutches, this is the season City are finally crowned by the federation as European champions.
Man City and PSG are the two favourites to win this season’s Champions League and with good reason. Kylian Mbappe has been in devastating form in 2021 while Guardiola’s side have all but clinched their third Premier League title in four years on the back of sparkling performances from Kevin de Bruyne, Ruben Dias and Phil Foden.
In Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, the pair also boast two of the best coaches in the sport. The former is a two-time Champions League winner, but hasn’t reached the top of the European game since 2011. The latter made the Champions League final as recently as 2019, but has yet to prove he can win the biggest games.
There’s a good chance 2021 will be the year one of Man City or PSG make their long-awaited Champions League breakthrough. Before either one of them gets their hands on the trophy, though, it’s worth considering what that symbolism would be worth to their owners. It’s always been about more than just football.
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