A multimillion-dollar dispute between the Spanish league and its Qatari broadcast partner, beIN Media Group, is the latest flare-up in the battle between two of the most powerful men in soccer.
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For months, it seemed, the feud between the leader of Spain’s top soccer league and the president of the Qatar-owned French team Paris St.-Germain has played out noisily, and in public.
Javier Tebas, the outspoken president of La Liga, would regularly criticize Paris St.-Germain and its Qatari leaders, accusing them of flagrantly breaking European soccer’s financial rules. And occasionally, the P.S.G. president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, would respond to Tebas with his own accusations, questioning the health of Spanish soccer, or trade barbs with him in the news media and in speeches.
The more high-stakes fight, it turns out, was taking place behind the scenes.
This week, after almost two months of wrangling, Tebas and La Liga secured a court order to freeze tens of millions of dollars of the assets of beIN Media Group, the Qatar-owned broadcast network headed by al-Khelaifi, in a dispute over unpaid broadcast-rights payments.
BeIN, one of the most prolific spenders on broadcast rights in the world, owns the rights to La Liga matches in swaths of Asia and the Middle East as well as some key European markets. But according to a court document reviewed by The New York Times, the network had so far failed to pay more than 50 million euros it owed the Spanish league for this season’s games.
In the 11-page order, the court said it had frozen the assets because of the risk that the funds would be repatriated to Qatar.
BeIN Media Group learned about the case, and the order freezing its assets, from a New York Times reporter. “Our reputation is founded on decades of significant investment, best-in-class broadcasting, long-term and trusted relationships with rights-holders, and a track record of payment,” the company said in a statement.
The beIN spokesman said 10 million euros of the debt had been repaid on Oct. 5. But the company said it would not discuss its private, contractual discussions with La Liga or any rights-holder, adding, “That is not how business should be conducted, certainly not by professional and dignified institutions.”
The outstanding debt represents only a fraction of the money beIN Media Group has paid over the years to La Liga, with industry estimates suggesting the total amount contracted between the league and the network to be as much as $1.5 billion since 2018.
Delays in payments to sports organizations are not uncommon, either, with broadcasters often known to negotiate payment plans with their partners. What is uncommon is the lengths La Liga has gone to ensure it receives the money it says it is owed. BeIN continues to broadcast La Liga games across its networks.
The case is certain to bring renewed focus on the influence in soccer of Qatar, which in addition to hosting next month’s World Cup also plays a leading role in European soccer through its free-spending ownership of P.S.G., the dominant force in French soccer, and beIN, which has paid out billions of dollars to acquire the broadcast rights to some of soccer’s top competitions.
But it also will shine a spotlight on the influence of al-Khelaifi, whose simultaneous roles as the chairman of P.S.G. and beIN Media Group and as a board member of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, have made him one of the most influential figures in the sport.
Al-Khelaifi has for years emphatically denied the accusation that he wields too much power given his various roles; he has said that in the past, he sought legal advice whenever such conflicts have arisen and that he regularly recuses himself from meetings in which his various roles could clash.
Tebas told The New York Times that beIN has been delaying payments since last year, and he rejected the network’s claim that it was facing financial challenges, saying, “I don’t believe them.”
Instead, Tebas suggested, the broadcaster is attempting to renegotiate its deals with La Liga, which cover territories stretching from France to the Middle East and Asia to New Zealand.
But Tebas also suggested there was another motive for the missed payments: He said they were an effort to pressure him to relent in his criticisms of al-Khelaifi. In June, for example, Tebas filed a complaint with UEFA in which he accused P.S.G. and Manchester City, another team backed by a Gulf state, of being in “continuous breach” of the organization’s financial regulations.
“He knows exactly what he is doing,” Tebas said of al-Khelaifi. “He’s trying to get to the point where clubs will tell the president of the league we prefer to get the money and have you talk less.”
BeIN made its disdain for Tebas clear in its response. “If we ran our operations reacting to certain executive’s comments on others within the sports industry, we wouldn’t be in business,” the company said.
Much of Tebas’s fury about P.S.G., and al-Khelaifi, stems from the French club’s ability to lure star players from La Liga, spending that he contends has unfairly altered the game’s economics. In 2017, P.S.G. broke the world transfer record when it paid 222 million euros, at the time more than double the highest amount previously paid for a player, to acquire the Brazilian star Neymar from Barcelona. It also managed to lure Lionel Messi to Paris in 2021 after Barcelona could not afford to renew his contract. And earlier this year, P.S.G. paid the French star Kylian Mbappé a signing-on fee of more than $100 million to reject the overtures of Real Madrid.
While other soccer leagues and executives have privately expressed concerns about the spending by state-owned teams, Tebas has been by far the most outspoken. “People in football are cowards,” Tebas said Wednesday, explaining why others have not been as outspoken as he has about the market-altering influence of teams like P.S.G. and Manchester City. “Football executives always want to make sure they have good relations and eat well instead of stepping outside their comfort zone.”
Al-Khelaifi has had little use for Tebas’s critiques; in June, he said he would not take lessons from Tebas, suggesting what the Spaniard had to say was not relevant.
For UEFA, the running dispute between two of its most prominent voices is proving to be awkward because both Tebas and al-Khelaifi are members of its executive board. The latest court fight will do little to lower the temperature, and it is not over.
The ruling freezing beIN’s assets, according to the document, is only a temporary measure; the court will hold a full hearing on the merits of the case, but the timetable is unclear.