Spanish soccer team FC Barcelona has reportedly decided not to renew its sponsorship deal with a Qatari group linked to the country’s royal family because of Qatar’s alleged involvement in funding Islamic extremist terrorist groups.
Israel’s Channel 2 reported Friday night that Barcelona, arguably the world’s most popular soccer team, will not renew the deal, which has so far brought in close to $200 million, because of mounting concerns related to the gulf state’s involvement in financing terrorism. Israeli leaders have frequently charged that Qatar funds Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza, and the TV report also cited alleged Qatari funding of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nusra Front, and other Islamist groups.
During this summer’s Israel-Hamas war, president Shimon Peres called Qatar “the world’s largest funder of terror.”
The endorsement deal, which is to expire in just over a year, was made with Qatar Sports Investments and allowed for the Qatar Foundation (2011-2013), an educational trust and charity organization, and Qatar Airways (2013-2015) to display their logos on the FC Barcelona players’ jerseys.
The energy-rich state is also believed to have financed other projects of the club to the tune of several hundred million dollars over the past four years.
The deal marked the first time any corporation has ever emblazoned its logo on the fabled blue and red jerseys of the Catalan club — a move that was largely unpopular with its fan base.
When news of the endorsement deal broke in late 2010, the Israeli government reportedly petitioned FC Barcelona to have the franchise cut ties with the Qatar Foundation over allegations that it was actively funding Hamas.
Qatar is home to Khaled Mashaal, the political leader of Hamas, and has donated billions of dollars to the Gaza Strip. Qatar also hosts Azmi Bishara, a former Israeli Arab Knesset member who fled Israel in 2007 when facing investigation on suspicion that he had spied for Hezbollah.
FC Barcelona is the most successful club in the Spanish Soccer League La Liga and one the most popular sports franchises in the world. Its team includes some of the world’s best players, including Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. However, it is also carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.
FC Barcelona has visited Qatar several times under the sponsorship deal. It has also come to Israel, where its players — wearing the Qatar logos on their shirts — participated in soccer clinics for Jewish and Arab youngsters.
Calls have circulated recently in the US Congress to isolate Qatar — a state that has polished its pro-Western image in recent years, welcoming in foreign universities, backing the global news channel Al-Jazeera and prepping to host the 2022 World Cup — for its championing of Hamas.
Since Hamas assumed control in Gaza in 2007, Qatar has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the territory and backed Hamas diplomatically.
Once cordial ties between Israel and Qatar — the first Persian Gulf state to establish ties with the Jewish state in 1996 — became tense in 2007 when Doha became one of the only countries to back Hamas, after the group booted the more moderate Palestinian Authority out of the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup. In 2012, its then-emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, became the first head of state to visit Gaza under Hamas rule, pledging to raise $400 million toward reconstruction.
Earlier this month, the US State Department said it had received assurances from Qatar that aid it was providing for the post-war rehabilitation of Gaza would not reach Hamas. Qatar pledged $1 billion toward rebuilding Gaza at a donor conference in Cairo two months ago.