The Champions League quarter-final between Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City on Wednesday is not just a contest between two of Europe’s richest clubs, it is also a battle of honour between Qatar and Abu Dhabi.
The English Premier League and Ligue 1 champions are emblematic of the domination of wealthy foreign owners in modern-day football.
Between them they are estimated to have spent more than 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) on players, according to sports industry studies.
The football clash has sparked interest across the Middle East. Adding to the spice away from the football pitch, political relations between World Cup 2022 hosts Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is one of the seven constituent emirates, have until recently been poor.
“Yes, you can say there is competition to see who has the best team,” said Qatari football fan, Mohammed Al-Jazali, talking of the competition between Qatar and UAE.
“It is like seeing if my BMW outperforms my neighbour’s Mercedes.”
The tie has been dubbed “El Cashico”, the “Oil and Gasico” and even the “Abu Derby” by inventive fans on social media.
It is clear that without Middle East involvement, this fixture would almost certainly not be taken place, and definitely not in the Champions League.
Under Gulf ownership the two teams have been propelled into Europe’s elite, uncharted territory for both sides.
Before Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) took ownership in 2012, PSG had most notably won two Ligue 1 titles and a UEFA Cup.
They are estimated to have spent more than 550 million euros since on transfers.
Turbo-charged by Gulf wealth, PSG have won four consecutive league titles, and are bidding, like City, for their first Champions League semi-final.
Chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who also heads up beIN Media, has made it no secret his aim for PSG to win the Champions League.
Similarly, City had last won a major trophy in 1976 and had been in the third tier of English football as recently as 1999 before being taken over by Abu Dhabi United Group, led by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in 2008.
In those eight years they have doubled to four the number of English league titles they have won since being formed in 1880. City are said to have spent one billion euros on players under their Abu Dhabi owners.
Now PSG are estimated by Deloitte to be the fourth most valuable side in the world with an estimated revenue of 480 million euros.
Manchester City are not far behind, the sixth most valuable club side, with a wealth of 463 million euros, say Deloitte.
“Qatar’s project is much bigger,” added Jazali. “It helps to get Qatar’s image out there more effectively for the World Cup.”
UAE-based City fan Chris Newbould disputes this, and pointed to Sheikh Mansour’s investment in the city as well as the club.
“Our guys have done it in a different way to the typical Qatari approach,” he said.
“They have regenerated east Manchester, the (youth) academy is probably the best in the world. They seem to be in it for the long-term and I can’t definitely say Qatar will do the same.”
– Off-pitch rivalry –
Beyond football, there is also a political aspect to this thoroughly modern clash.
In March 2014, the UAE withdrew its ambassador from Qatar in protest at Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, although the envoy has since returned.
“Ties have improved markedly since… March 2014,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East Rice University’s Baker Institute.
“Emir Tamim has been a regular visitor to the UAE and has patched up relations that came under unprecedented strain during the rule of his father and in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring.”
British academic and author Christopher Davidson said the days of both states funding such expensive overseas projects as PSG and City may be over because of the slump in energy prices.
He conceded there are warmer relations between the Gulf state rivals, but questioned how long that will last.
“(There is) no trust at all between the two, with only their shared interest in maintaining a US alliance binding them together,” he said.
“Either regime would relish a chance to topple the other whenever the opportunity arose.”