Soccer

A Saudi-led consortium’s takeover of EPL club Newcastle United has buoyed the spirits of long-suffering fans, reaffirmed the power of sportswashing, and driven a financial stake through the heart of the Beautiful Game. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Newcastle United and the enduring power of sportswashing

Newcastle United fans celebrate their team’s takeover this month.
Credit: Ian Forsyth / Getty Images

In April, two extraordinary things happened. The first was a secret plot between the world’s biggest soccer clubs to establish a rebel European tournament, which would have effectively replaced the Champions League with a cartel. The founding clubs would comprise a “Super League” in perpetuity, eliminating the principle of open and competitive qualification.

Even for a global business infamous for its venality, inequity and corruption, the attempted coup was craven. Secretly conceived, it was then imperiously announced – a fait accompli from titans who believed themselves too big to be challenged.

In this instance they were wrong, because the second extraordinary thing was an immediate and cascading public revolt. Chelsea fans blockaded the team bus; Liverpool and Manchester United fans picketed their stadiums. Shirts were torched in the street; retired football heroes condemned plutocratic greed on live telly. Boris Johnson, Prince William and Emmanuel Macron were all critical, while Europe’s football administrators threatened sanctions. Inside 72 hours, the clubs apologetically capitulated.

Compare that with this month’s scenes of jubilant Newcastle United fans, wearing keffiyeh headdress and waving Saudi flags, celebrating the club’s takeover by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, a kingdom considered one of the most malignant theocracies on Earth. Their club, which had been joylessly sleepwalking for much of this century, had suddenly, theoretically, become the planet’s wealthiest.

And its biggest sports story.

The Saudi consortium’s purchase of the English Premier League club was first attempted 18 months ago. Newcastle’s owner then was Mike Ashley, a billionaire retail mogul whose arrogant, tight-fisted and ambitionless reign at the club had long made him villainous among fans. “We don’t demand a team that wins,” read a popular fan banner. “We demand a club that tries.”

In the Ashley years, Newcastle was twice relegated to the second tier of English football, and otherwise played a numbingly indifferent game – a cruel contrast with their mid-’90s pomp when they went trophyless but were competitive and famously exhilarating.

Popular hatred for Ashley only seemed to stubbornly generate his own, and for years both fans and owner were stuck in a toxic loop of contempt. Eventually, Ashley sought to sell the club and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund offered about what he had paid for it in 2007: £300 million, a mere drip in Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) worth about half a trillion clams.

The attempted purchase last year was ensnared in accusations of media piracy. The Qatari network beIN Media, which owns the Middle East’s Premier League broadcasting rights, had been blocked in Saudi Arabia since 2017 – the casualty of a rivalrous diplomatic stoush – and Qatar lobbied the Premier League to reject the Saudi offer because the kingdom had permitted the pirated broadcast of their expensively acquired games. As it was, the Premier League was relieved from making a decision then: the Saudis withdrew their bid, complaining that the vetting process was taking too long. Newcastle fans were furious. So was Mike Ashley, who later filed a lawsuit against the Premier League to force the sale.

Fast forward to October 2021, and Qatar and the Saudis have restored diplomatic relations, and the beIN blockade has been lifted – though the Premier League insists the hiccups were only ever about paperwork. As it was, the announcement came like a flash of lightning.

“We have to look things in the eye and we have to accept criticism,” Amanda Staveley, the British financier who negotiated the deal on behalf of the crown prince, said after the ink had dried. Staveley now sits on the club’s board, her firm having purchased a 10 per cent stake alongside the Saudi consortium’s 80 per cent. Sensibly, the murderous bin Salman has allowed her to become the sparkling and articulate face of the takeover. “Human rights we take very seriously, but our partner is PIF, not the Saudi state,” Staveley continued. “The separation issue has been resolved. It’s not sportswashing. It’s investment.”

This was breathtakingly deceptive. The Saudi PIF is a sovereign fund, run by Mohammed bin Salman. There’s no meaningful distinction, but there’s also no penalty for pretending that there is.

Meanwhile, Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of the late Jamal Khashoggi – the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 to inquire about some papers, and left in pieces stuffed in suitcases – was met with torrents of online abuse from Newcastle fans (and, no doubt, Saudi-sponsored trolls) for having tweeted her regret at the takeover.

In February, United States intelligence agencies declassified reports concluding that bin Salman had personally authorised Khashoggi’s murder.

In a column for The Athletic, former Newcastle United striker, manager and local folk-hero Alan Shearer gave an embarrassing performance of tortured ambivalence. “Every indication so far is that fans will be put front and centre,” he wrote about the new owners that had flatteringly – and shrewdly – brought him back into the tent.

“It is a moment to take stock, to celebrate the passing of 14 dreadful years and to usher in something new. Something that has the potential to be big and transformative. Something that comes with a few important caveats…”

And so, halfway into a column describing the long zombified state of his beloved club, Shearer obligingly pivots to those caveats: “We owe it to ourselves and the wider world to listen to the evidence about human-rights abuses in Saudi, to educate ourselves and know what we’re getting into. It’s important to be mindful about sportswashing and what that actually means.”

Shearer, like most Newcastle United fans, wants transformation and doesn’t much care where it comes from, or what motivates their new patron to offer it, but obligingly gestures to the rottenness of the new owner. It reminded me of the empty pearl-clutching of Tony Soprano’s wife, Carmela, when she occasionally needs to performatively demonstrate a capacity for moral disgust.

Hypocrisy and contradiction abound. Pundit and ex-Manchester United defender Gary Neville, whose articulate disgust about the Super League went viral in April, was now celebrating the return of “hope” to Newcastle.

Or take Boris Johnson, who sniffed the flare-streaked winds in April and promised a review of football ownership and regulation – including a study of Germany’s model of majority fan ownership – and yet intervened on behalf of the Saudi crown prince to publicly ask why the Premier League was being so obstructive. (And elsewhere: the British government sanctioned Saudi officials for Khashoggi’s murder, while the very next day resumed selling arms to them.)

Then there was Newcastle’s local MP, Chi Onwurah, who in 2018 described Saudi Arabia as a “murderous state” but who now parroted the new board in hoping “this investment is a sign of change and a desire to open up on the part of Saudi Arabia”, as she celebrated the departure of Mike Ashley and acknowledged the fans’ years of agony under his ownership.

Throughout this, there has been from fan groups, commentators and politicians a sickly conflation of the “suffering” of Newcastle supporters with the suffering of the tortured, beheaded, stalked, arbitrarily imprisoned and chemically castrated citizens of Saudi Arabia. If you thought the suffering of Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée couldn’t be compounded, Cengiz need only have tuned in to Sky Sports in the past fortnight to watch the floods of sympathy for the poor fans who’ve experienced one too many relegation battles.

But why single Newcastle United out? Roman Abramovich, the prodigious industrial polluter and oligarchical Putin buddy, took over Chelsea in 2003 and has since won five Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions League trophies, while Abu Dhabi’s 2008 purchase of Manchester City transformed the club from the anaemic kid brother of its cross-town rival to a global superpower. (They’re also the cold, distant, but wealthy father of current A-League champions Melbourne City).

Why shouldn’t Newcastle have its turn? If everyone’s guilty, then no one is. Which was the argument disgraced Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong made after his exposure as a drug cheat; and the same argument Luciano Moggi, ex-director of Italy’s biggest football club, made after the exposure of his vast program of buying off referees, or intimidating those he couldn’t.

If you can’t beat ’em, then pray that you can join ’em – another snout in the silty troughs of hedge funds, Kremlin cronies, petro-tyrants and the kings of zero-hour contracts. Still, it’s a curious enthusiasm for foreign ownership from a country that only a few years ago backed Brexit.

“Maybe it’s just our go,” Shearer shrugged, which was the perfect expression of the glibness and self-absorption required to sustain fandom among the dysregulated and pitiless intensification of capital in the Beautiful Game.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "Free kick for tyrants".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.