Qatar has adorned shirts of football leviathans, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona, and now they're looking to move into rugby with Narbonne in the ProD2
They own Paris Saint-Germain, their name adorns the shirts of Barcelona and their Aspire Football Dreams initiative claims to have worked with three and a half million youngsters cross Africa, Asia and Latin America in the last decade. And, of course, they’re hosting the 2022 World Cup.
The influence of Qatar in world football has been growing steadily in the past few years and now it appears the Gulf State is eyeing up rugby union. It’s a logical progression, particularly in France, where the Qatar-owned broadcaster beIN Sports has the rights to the Champions Cup.
Now the Qatari Investment Fund (QIF) wants to buy Narbonne, often referred to by its initials RCNM, (Racing Club Narbonne Méditerranée), a famous old club that is no longer the force it once was. Currently languishing in the bottom half of ProD2, RCNM won the last of its two Top 14 titles in 1979 but has since been in slow decline.
In the summer of 2011 the club narrowly avoided relegation to the third tier of French rugby, Federale 1, because of financial mismanagement, but the following year some semblance of stability arrived when an Australian Consortium – including former Wallaby and Leicester coach Bob Dwyer and ex-Australian flanker Rocky Elsom – took control of the Mediterranean club.
Now Qatar are circling but Elsom – who still plays for Narbonne – isn’t interested. In a statement published on the club’s official website last weekend, the 32-year-old Australian said that no official offer had been made and “even if there had been an offer, I seriously doubt that it would be in the best interests for Narbonne or RCNM, therefore the matter’s closed and we should all move on.”
But while many of the club’s supporters back Elsom’s stance, plenty of people in the region want to accept the Middle Eastern money. “I see this arrival as a tremendous opportunity for the town of Narbonne,” declared Didier Mouly, the mayor. “Jihad Manai wishes to reach the top.”
Manai represents QIF and in recent weeks he’s done his best to persuade Elsom to sell. Last month, in an interview with a local newspaper, Manai outlined his vision for the club and the town. “It’s not a matter of bringing a sponsorship to the Narbonne team…it’s a change of ownership, of development, of investment, in order to give a real boost. That’s what we would like to do for the town.”
Manai’s vision is clearing having an effect on some, conjuring up images of Qatar money doing for Narbonne what it has done for Paris Saint-Germain. “It’s a wonderful opportunity!” exclaimed Guy Molveau, the regional rugby president. “We can only praise the Australians for [what they did] four years ago. They, and a group from Narbonne, have saved the club…but if the Qataris have the means to take an interest in general, and RCNM Narbonne in particular, it’s an act which can become very important for rugby and also a boost for the economy.”
QIF haven’t given up hope of acquiring Narbonne, giving Elsom until December 31 to change his mind, but Jihad Manai warned: “If he doesn’t call me, then very sincerely and without arrogance, I have no reason to chase after him.” Explaining that rugby is growing in popularity ‘in our part of the world’, Manai said there was an appetite among the young to learn more about the sport and he envisaged forging a rugby partnership between Qatar and France. “Obviously my preference is for Narbonne,” he added, “but when the bride doesn’t want to get married, should one remain single? If the bride isn’t interested, then it’s best I go elsewhere to get married.”
In fact this is not the first time Qatar have courted a French rugby club. In 2012 Thomas Savare, president of Stade Francais, held talks with Nasser al-Khelaïfi, his counterpart at PSG, whose stadium is next door to the Stade Jean Bouin. No deal was forthcoming and when asked why not Savare replied: “It’s a sea snake, therefore it swims between two waters and is always there.”
A somewhat enigmatic response but then few things are straightforward when it comes to Qatar’s interest in rugby.