Doha (AFP) – Turn right at the Venice-style canal inside Doha’s Villagio mall, complete with electric gondolas for shoppers, and you will find the Paris Saint-Germain store.
A narrow entrance leads to a treasure trove of all things PSG — from kit, key rings and t-shirts emblazoned with the fans’ chant “Ici, c’est Paris!’ to the club’s very own brand of espadrilles.
The walls are adorned with TV screens showing game highlights and pictures of the team’s biggest stars: Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
The store is everything you would expect from the French football club-turned-global sporting brand under its Qatari owners.
But the European club has become something more for Qatar over the past 10 months of boycott by its Gulf neighbours — a symbol of national pride.
Inside the shop, the change is palpable.
“It used to be all Saudis and people from the UAE in here,” a shop assistant told AFP.
“Now it is Qataris — young Qataris.”
– Trading teams –
Qataris traditionally support one local and one international team, many plumping for Spanish giants Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Spanish league bosses last year opened “La Liga Lounge” bar in Doha, where fans can watch games while waited on by staff wearing club shirts.
Many others fly out regularly to see the Spanish clubs in person.
But Doha has been on a mission to court a loyal fan base for its flagship club.
Two months into the Gulf crisis, PSG spent 400 million euros ($490 million) to sign Neymar and Mbappe.
The move triggered scrutiny by UEFA in the form of a Financial Fair Play investigation, but also attracted new fans.
“The transfer of Neymar has made a big difference to the popularity of the team among Qataris,” local fan Mabkhout al-Marri told AFP.
“It has increased its popularity to the point that for some Qataris, PSG is number one, then Barcelona or Real Madrid.”
– Paris pride, Qatari pride –
Last June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt abruptly froze ties with Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism and fostering ties with regional rival Iran, charges denied by Doha.
The crisis has taken many forms, from fears of military confrontation to rising nationalism.
In Qatar, national identity has manifested itself through increased support for PSG.
A European football club — established one year before Qatar became an independent country — has become a symbol of the emirate’s vast energy wealth and newfound presence on the global sporting stage.
“Paris Saint-Germain is a part of us now and a source of pride for our country,” said fan Marri.
Doha bought PSG through the state-funded Qatar Sports Investment in 2011.
Since then, the club’s fortunes have been transformed, winning five Ligue 1 titles and becoming a permanent fixture in the Champions League.
Beyond trophies, Qatar is gaining more than just prestige for its multi-million acquisition.
“Qatar’s ownership of Paris Saint-Germain seems to have become something of a rallying point for both its football fans and its citizens in general,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor who writes about sport and geopolitics at Britain’s Salford University.
“Perhaps the most significant engagement between Qataris and PSG is motivated as much by the country’s blockade by its near neighbours as anything else.
“It seems ironic that ownership of a French football club can become a conduit for an increase in nationalist sentiment in Qatar, however this is exactly what has happened,” he added.