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Newcastle's Imminent Saudi Takeover Exposes Seediness of Modern Football Values

Between an actual reason for why Newcastle's potential sale could be denied and the fan eagerness to welcome a questionable regime into the owner's suite, the whole situation is rather unsettling.

A Qatar-based media firm has written to the Premier League and its clubs asking that the proposed takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia be blocked because of alleged breaches of regulations concerning broadcasting rights.

On the one hand, it’s a dry, legalistic sentence. On the other, it’s a sentence that makes you stop and wonder. When those original members of the Football Association met in the Freemason’s Arms near Covent Garden in London in December 1863 to draw up a set of amalgamated laws, was this what they thought their sport would become? When mill-workers and stonemasons and railwaymen were arguing for the right to be paid to play football 20 years later, was this how they thought it might turn out? 

Even a century after that, as Silvio Berlusconi began the negotiations that led to the foundation of the Champions League, surely nobody thought a club in the north-east of England (last league title 1926-27) would become a bargaining chip in the fraught politics of the Middle East.

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And, of course, what would make the punchline all the more perfect were this to be the issue that blocks the deal, is that it would expose utterly the values of the Premier League and modern football more generally. Amnesty International’s protests about human rights barely raised a flicker, but when you start to threaten the revenue flow from overseas TV rights, that’s an entirely different matter. Bomb civilians in Yemeni markets? Dismember a journalist with a bone saw? Behead 37 people in one day, many after confessions apparently made under torture? Unfortunate, but nothing to do with us. Run a pirate TV station that broadcasts the Premier League? Absolutely unconscionable.

There is no sign, as of yet, that the BeIN Sports complaint about supposed Saudi complicity in the pirate channel beoutQ would cause Newcastle’s new owners to fail the Fit and Proper Persons Test. But it has certainly prompted a greater pause for reflection than Amnesty’s complaint. Modern football values profit above human rights: it’s hardly a shock but there’s still something disconcerting about seeing that equation exposed quite so obviously.

It’s also been disturbing how many Newcastle fans appear unperturbed by the source of their probable new wealth. It’s readily understandable why they should be so eager to see the back of Mike Ashley, who took over the club in 2007. It’s not just that he has seemingly run the club to advertise his chain of sports shops, or that he has at times seemed willfully to antagonize the fan base. It’s that his cost-cutting and preference for employing staff on zero-hours contracts is representative of a way of doing business that has demoralized and degraded a generation of workers in Britain’s post-industrial heartlands. Ashley’s faltering appearance before a government select committee in 2018 laid bare the bleak working conditions in his stores, which an MP had described as being like “a Victorian workhouse.”

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Of course any alternative would be appealing. Having the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia own 80% of a club opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities in terms of new signings. Nothing, essentially, would be off limits. But what is remarkable is how readily issues of conscience have been placed aside.

Fans are in a hugely difficult position. It’s their club, the emotional bonds that bind them to it forged over generations. They’re not going to go and support the next club along the road. Social media is not necessarily the most helpful gauge, prioritizing as it does the loudest and potentially giving a false impression of numbers and scale, but already, as happened at Manchester City after its takeover by Abu Dhabi, a sizable contingent of fans have lined up to defend the Saudis and justify the investment. Saudi flags have started appearing in Twitter bios, journalists who have questioned the ethics of the takeover have been attacked and Amnesty’s motives and integrity have been questioned.

It’s the usual sense of whataboutery, false equivalence and conspiracy theory–which of course is part of the soft-power strategy. Buying a football club allows states to be seen as benign figures, as though Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were just another businessman. It also gains them an army of online warriors, leaping to their defense as though defending Saudi foreign policy were some offshoot of an argument about whether Alan Shearer was better than Thierry Henry. Nobody expects Newcastle fans to give up their club; what is odd is how many have already become active proponents of a highly questionable regime.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman leads the Saudi's takeover of Newcastle

And then there’s the fact exposed by the BeIN Sport issue: Newcastle is now a pawn in a much bigger game. Fans who struggled to get Mike Ashley to listen to them aren’t going to find Prince Mohammed any more receptive. (And there must here be a question about his judgment: he seems badly to have misread what the reaction would be to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and launching an oil price war in the midst of a pandemic drove the cost of the barrel into negative territory.) Anybody who thinks they’ve got their club back is likely to be sorely disappointed.

The upside is Newcastle should now be able to afford some of the world’s top talent. The club could establish itself once again as challengers for the Premier League. But the question for its fans is how great is the cost–and for everybody else in football, is how the sport became a battlefield in much greater struggles.