Last week, the sale of Newcastle United was agreed upon between Mike Ashley and the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia.
Whilst many Newcastle supporters are jubilant, with some proclaiming in the streets “we’ve got our club back”, they could not be any further from the truth. The sale of Newcastle represents a dark day for football and shows the extent to which our once beautiful game has turned corrupted and ugly.
Firstly, it is important to stress that to some degree I am sympathetic to Newcastle fans. For years under Mike Ashley, the club was mismanaged and underfunded, with the team falling from a top-flight powerhouse to a Championship side.
Once back in the Premier League, poor signings and managerial mediocrity made fans of this once great club become disillusioned and lose hope. They are happy to see Ashley gone and a new owner with deep pockets claims to make Newcastle competitive again, but at what moral cost?
A football owner used to be a businessman in the local area with a passion for the club and a desire to improve it. The 2000s and 2010s saw the rise of billionaires getting involved in the sport, with figures like Roman Abramovich using Chelsea to strengthen his image. Now, we have entire countries having a controlling stake in a football club, pouring resources and money into a club thousands of miles away from home. Newcastle United is not a local club anymore, but a marketing tool and asset for a foreign state.
Saudi Arabia is a questionable nation, and it is concerning how the Premier League approved the decision to let a country with severe human rights abuses pass the ‘fit and proper persons test’. Saudi Arabia has been criticised for its poor treatment of migrant workers, while free speech in the country is severely limited.
Writing critical articles such as this would not be allowed in Saudi Arabia, with potentially severe punishments for those who go against Mohammad bin Salman. In 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who dared to challenge the leader of Saudi Arabia in his writing, was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a security team, likely at the personal request of MBS. Do we want a state like this having a controlling stake in one of our most recognisable football clubs?
People who support the takeover point to Manchester City, PSG and the Qatar World Cup and begin whataboutism to deflect. It was wrong when Sheik Mansour got involved with Manchester City, and it is wrong with Yasir Al-Rumayyan and Newcastle now.
Football has become increasingly corrupted by money and greed over the last 20 years, but the Premier League could have taken a bold stand against the further erosion of our sport. Instead, they have kowtowed to a state who seeks to use Newcastle United as a branding mission. For an apparent socially conscious organisation that proclaims it is against discrimination and celebrated the rainbow laces campaign, the acceptance of the takeover shows how the Premier League cares little about moral causes. Sodomy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia and being gay is banned, showing how detached Saudi values are from the liberal values we hold in the United Kingdom.
Make no mistake; Saudi Arabia cares very little about football and the people of Newcastle. This is yet another example of sports washing, in which a morally reprehensible regime tries to improve its image by hosting a large sporting event or through an acquisition.
It is why they have attracted Anthony Joshua to do title fights in Riyadh and are joining the F1 Grand Prix tour this year. The same happened during the 2018 Russian World Cup, where Putin used the games as a propaganda exercise, despite the human rights abuses under his administration. Expect Saudi officials to appear smiling at Newcastle games or announce a big-name manager in the next few weeks to distract you from the fact that the ownership is ethically shameful.
I am not naive and understand that this pattern of illiberal regimes financially supporting football will continue. No petition can change the situation sport finds itself in because money talks, and those with the most money seem to do the most talking. Gary Lineker can post a tweet posturing about the takeover, but he will likely still be presenting the BBC coverage of the equally dubious Qatar World Cup next year.
People only care about these issues for a few days and forget about them as soon as the game begins and the referee blows the whistle. Until we collectively start caring about the role of authoritarian actors shaping our society, it will sadly continue to happen.