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Bayern Munich and Qatar: a marriage of inconvenience

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How much would it cost Bayern Munich to look the right way instead of the other way?

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FC Bayern Muenchen Doha Training Camp Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

For the eighth year in a row, Bayern Munich traveled to the luxurious Aspire Academy in Doha, Qatar, this past January to hold its annual winter training camp. When Bayern first visited the kingdom in January 2011, the move excited little media reaction at all. Today, Bayern’s Qatari entanglements attract ever more unwanted scrutiny and criticism.

Qatar's shocking record of human rights violations (Human Rights Watch) in its treatment of the migrant workers who are building the stadiums destined to host the World Cup in 2022 have turned Bayern's winter camp into an annual embarrassment for a club that professes social responsibility and a proud Jewish heritage.

Why does Bayern Munich persist in this increasingly fraught relationship?

Soccer first?

Qatar made headlines late in 2010 for its successful and highly controversial bid to host the World Cup in 2022. Bayern’s coach at the time, Louis Van Gaal, who would oversee the team’s first training camp in Doha just a month later, was astounded. Van Gaal called FIFA’s decision “unbelievable” and “not the right choice.” “Soccer always has to come first,” Van Gaal said at the time (TZ).

FC Bayern Muenchen Doha Training Camp Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

To this day, Bayern Munich claim that they travel to Qatar strictly for soccer. In the inaugural year, 2011, the club praised the Aspire Academy's “perfectly prepared fields” and quoted Philipp Lahm: “The pitch is sensational. I've seldom seen a better one.” Thomas Müller likewise was quoted lauding the “optimal conditions” in Doha.

The club bosses have repeated that mantra ever since. “The fields are wonderful, the weather is perfect,” club chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told TZ in 2015. And again in 2018, the club emphasized the “excellent conditions on the grounds of the Aspire Academy” for preparing for the Rückrunde, virtually reproducing what Qatari media say.

But balmy weather and nice facilities can be had much closer to home. Bayern Munich is the conspicuous outlier among Bundesliga clubs, almost all of which winter either in Germany or Spain.

Soccer and training are in fact only incidental to the club’s annual sojourn to the Persian Gulf. Bayern’s real reason for traveling to Qatar—and weathering a now annual storm of criticism—is strictly business.

Sandro Wagner’s candid remarks on visiting Qatar.

I can only speak for myself. One guy might think about it more, another less. [...] You don’t see the country at all. We arrived in the dark, then from the airport to the hotel. I could be in Austria or somewhere else, in Spain. You don’t see anything at all. [...] Naturally if you think about it, you understand this or that. But I don’t have any real insight and haven’t really engaged with it. I’m more at home in Bavarian politics, and here in Qatar I really don’t have any idea that’d go into any detail.

Hamad International Airport: Bayern’s ‘Platinum Partner’

Deep in Bayern’s homepage, you can pull up a list of Bayern’s “partners.” These are Bayern’s official corporate sponsors, ranging from big names like Adidas and Allianz all the way down to subdivisions of Siemens and Beats by Dre. Bayern’s partners are ranked. Major sponsors and shareholders appear at the top, followed by “platinum partners,” “gold partners,” and simple “official partners.”

Among the platinum partners, the same rank held by famed Munich brewer Paulaner: Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar.

Bayern launched its partnership with HIA in 2016, five years after the club first visited Qatar during the winter break. Rummenigge praised the relationship as “a further step in our internationalization strategy.” It is not just that.

Bayern’s platinum partners, as official sponsors, are estimated to pay approximately €5-7 million to the club annually. Advertisements for platinum partners like Paulaner and DHL are featured in the Allianz Arena itself and elsewhere in connection with the club. Another estimate puts the HIA deal at approximately €4-6 million.

That relationship with HIA intensified just last year when it was announced that HIA's logo would appear on the sleeves of Bayern's 2017/18 jerseys. The airport celebrated, but Bayern remained mum. ESPN FC correspondent Stephan Uersfeld ironically pestered Bayern to announce the deal:

No club announcement was ever made.

It’s unknown how much HIA is paying Bayern for its sleeve logo. The most lucrative Bundesliga sleeve sponsorship known is Schalke’s four-year deal with the online supermarket AllyouneedFresh.de, totaling €20 million. Bayern’s deal with HIA will be similar, if not even more lucrative.

These estimates would put the income from HIA’s corporate sponsorship into the neighborhood of €10 million or more. For comparison, Robert Lewandowski’s annual wages are estimated at €15 million.

Contractual obligations known and unknown

Bayern president Uli Hoeness recently boasted that he would show rebellious players their contracts and ask them whether they could read the date until when they had signed. A similar situation may in fact keep Bayern returning to the Aspire Academy year after year.

Bayern's shirt-sleeve sponsorship deal with HIA runs six years, until 2023, the year after Qatar host World Cup 2022. The Bavarians presumably anticipate their “platinum partnership” relationship with HIA to extend at least until that date. Yet both these deals originated long after Bayern began traveling to the Aspire Academy.

The beginning of Bayern’s relationship with Qatar was as timely as its expected end: Bayern’s first winter camp took place only a month after Qatar’s winning bid for World Cup 2022 was announced on December 2, 2010. Bayern thus perfectly anticipated the winning bid.

QATAR-FBL-GERMANY-DIPLOMACY Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

From Qatar’s perspective, the distinguished guests from Bavaria are part of the regime’s effort to ascend to global prominence through the world’s game. The Peninsula, a pro-government Qatari newspaper, for instance, depicts Bayern as the poster child of the Aspire Academy's effort “to achieve its vision of becoming a worldwide reference in sport excellence by 2020.” Qatar thus has much to gain from the relationship and makes the most of the publicity Bayern provide.

Bayern, in contrast, have kept conspicuously quiet. Cum tacent, clamant the adage goes. The club announced that HIA was a new platinum partner in 2016, but never announced the sleeve sponsorship through official media. The club thus returns to Qatar annually, but otherwise “sticks to sports.”

The ambivalence of Bayern’s relationship with Qatar is also reflected by the fact that the club has an official Twitter account dedicated to Qatar. At the time of this writing, the account has two followers—including myself. Its only tweet is a retweet from the English account on Sept. 1, 2017, wishing all a happy Eid Mubarak.

Bayern Muenchen Training Session Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Given that Bayern have visited Qatar for years before the HIA sponsorhisp, it is a distinct possibility that Bayern have a longstanding contractual obligation to hold their winter camp at the Aspire Academy. Until recently, that has remained only speculation. But Jupp Heynckes himself seemed to allude to the existence of such a contract at a press conference in late October, referring to the team’s then upcoming trip in 2018:

FC Bayern has an obligation to fly to Qatar. But then it will be done the way I imagine it.

Such a binding relationship would go far to explain Bayern’s persistence in traveling to Qatar in the face of withering criticism in Germany and abroad.

Sources of revenue

Even if we ignore the possibility that Bayern may have signed a contract of some sort with the Aspire Academy, the income from the club’s Qatari sponsorship deals is considerable. HIA may, for example, pay approximately €6m annually as a platinum partner and an additional €5m (or more) for their sleeve sponsorship. That alone may keep Bayern returning year after year.

Commercial revenue is crucial to Bayern’s continued success. According to the Deloitte Money Report, Bayern continues to have the greatest commercial revenue of any club in the world (€352.2m). That amount is offsetting the anemic income generated from Bundesliga broadcasting rights (€225.9m). Although still claiming fourth place in the Money League, Bayern’s total revenue actually declined slightly from 2016 to 2017, dropping €592m to €587.8m.

Bayern’s front office is acutely aware of this situation. Some help is on the horizon in the form of a new broadcasting deal for the Bundesliga, but that will not raise revenue to levels seen in England or Spain. Commercial revenue will remain absolutely vital to maintaining Bayern’s financial strength against fierce international competition. The strength of the club and the product on the field ultimately depend on it.

The bottom line

And there is the crux: Bayern simply cannot afford to drop a valuable “platinum partner” because of public scrutiny. The club chooses instead the bear the brunt of the negative publicity (e.g. Focus) each winter rather than sacrifice a source of annual income totaling at least €10m and potentially much more than that.

Bayern Muenchen Doha Training Camp Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images via Getty Images

The strategy with which Bayern has addressed the Qatar problem has evolved. After initially claiming that conditions at the Aspire Academy were simply the best, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge controversially defended the annual trip in a 2015 interview with Sport Bild. He claimed at the time,

A training camp is not a political statement. No one should mix things that do not belong together.

But Rummenigge also argued that Bayern brought a “message of integration and the freedom to determine one’s life” to the desert nation. It is this positive mission that the club continues to emphasize. In his most recent statements about Qatar (in an interview with TZ), Rummenigge argued that,

The situation of the workers situation in Qatar has been improved by soccer, even if it naturally could still be better. FC Bayern is doing its part as a representative of the whole soccer family.

Bayern’s ultras were unimpressed. In the face of reports published by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the Südkurve responded with a depiction of Rummenigge with “tomatoes over his eyes,” a German expression used to describes someone who refuses to see something obvious. His words quoted above appeared next to the display.

Change

But there are glimmers of hope and change that may bear Rummenigge out, at least to some small extent. Soccer may indeed slowly be changing Qatar for the better—although it should not be forgotten that soccer (or FIFA) also created the problem by controversially awarding Qatar World Cup 2022, setting the building frenzy in motion.

Despite ongoing abuses, Human Rights Watch noted in its 2017 report on Qatar that Qatar had reached an agreement with the International Trade Union Confederation and had pledged to end its exploitative kafala system, which effectively traps migrant workers in a system of modern slave labor.

Sports venues under construction in Qatar ahead of 2022 FIFA World Cup
Lusail Iconic Stadium, a venue built for the 2022 World Cup.
Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

Although it remains unknown how the reforms will be carried out and on what timetable, the reforms should end the most notorious abuses to which migrant workers are subjected, instituting a minimum wage, enforcing payment, ending document confiscation, and improving labor and health conditions.

If and when the reforms are enacted, a burden will also be lifted from Bayern, because despite the club’s own history and German public opinion, Bayern seems trapped in Qatar for the foreseeable future. The club cannot afford to spurn a platinum partner, and there is a real possibility that Bayern are contractually bound to train in Doha annually.

And so it will be to Munich’s relief if soccer at last makes things better in Qatar, after making them far, far worse since 2011. Bayern have little choice but to keep going: as we all know, the last thing Uli Hoeness would do is tear up a contract.