By Hannah Bowater
Though it was received with much jubilation on Tyneside, the takeover of Newcastle United by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) represents the final nail in the coffin of English football.
This wasn’t a sudden death, but the final result is still just as tragic. Football in this country had been terminally ill for some time. Yet the authorities charged with protecting our beloved institution turned a blind eye to every worrying symptom and have had their heads turned by the allure of an alternative therapy – money. And lots of it. It was by no means a long-term cure, but it sure did make you forget all those troublesome warning signs.
It was perhaps always inevitable that football would end in this way. From the moment the Premier League was formed in 1992, birthed in the dark shadow of a Conservative government which was reaching its teenage years, their primary aim was to make English football a more profitable entity.
And like some great Shakespearian tragedy, the very thing the Premier League was created to produce would become its downfall.
At the turn of the decade, the Premier League made the first of its many, many mistakes over the years. They began to let the foxes into the henhouse one by one. It began with Russian Oligarch Roman Abramovich who purchased Chelsea F.C in 2003. He was soon followed in 2008 by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, the then soon-to-be Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, whose purchase of Manchester City made them the richest club in the world by some margin. American billionaire Stan Kroenke purchased Arsenal in 2011, which resulted in Arsenal’s continued status as one of the top 10 richest clubs in the world.
These takeovers turned our beautiful game into a mere plaything for the world’s richest men. Chelsea and Manchester City’s takeovers, marked the beginning of a new era in English football: “sportswashing.” This is the practice of groups or states, like Sheikh Mansour’s United Arab Emirates, using sport to wash over it’s questionable reputations.
The takeover of Newcastle United however eclipses all previous takeovers 10-fold, putting the club at the top of the financial pyramid with the net worth of PIF coming in at an estimated $500 billion. That’s more than the other top 10 richest football clubs in the world combined.
It also eclipses all previous attempts at sportswashing to a large extent. Prior to the takeover, it was estimated that Saudi Arabia had spent a whopping $1.5 billion on sporting events in an effort to distract from its disastrous human right’s record. The state has rightly faced extreme criticism over its draconic laws which include capital punishment for homosexuals, and for the Crown Prince’s complicity in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Coincidentally, that very same Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, is the de-facto chairman of the Public Investment Fund that now owns Newcastle United Football Club. In fact, the PIF has also been tangled up within the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, after court documents revealed the Fund’s ownership of the planes used to transport Khashoggi’s assassins.
Yet, despite these horrific human rights abuses, and pleas from Amnesty International that the takeover be blocked, a recent survey by the club’s Supporter’s Trust revealed that 93.8% of Geordies were in favour of the Saudi-backed takeover. Perhaps even more curiously United with Pride, the club’s LGBTQ+ Supporters Group issued a statement in support of the new ownership, acknowledging Saudi Arabia’s crimes against the LGBT community but somewhat naively suggesting that Newcastle United will have the ability to be a beacon for change within the country.
It would appear that sportswashing is already in full swing, with Sky Sport’s News North-East correspondent Keith Downie, referring to Newcastle’s owners as “generally nice people” in a since deleted tweet. Downie later clarified he comments, stating he was “referring to the people [he] has dealt with so far on the ground” in Newcastle, presumably not the Saudi government officials involved with the PIF.
Desperation for a new owner on Tyneside is understandable after 14 years, and two relegations under Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley. The question is…is selling your soul to a regime that appears to value women as much as the Premier League values protecting fans the answer?
The whole affair is just yet another example of the soulless nature of football in the modern era. Coming less than nine months after an assassination attempt was made on the English Footballing Pyramid with the announcement of the European Super League by the supposed “Big Six” teams in the country (which curiously contained Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, both of whom were outside of the Premier League’s top six at the time of the announcement.)
The lack of meaningful punishment for the six English teams involved in the Super League debacle makes it all the more likely a similar attempt will be made in the future, to launch a breakaway invitation only, for-profit league. Only this time following their takeover, you can guarantee Newcastle United’s owners will be much less vocal in their opposition. Given their new-found wealth we will most likely see them with a seat at the operating table.