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The great game of football has always been an expression of the country and times in which it is played, so the takeover of Newcastle United by a Saudi Arabian investment fund radiates the widest of reflections about the state that England is in.
On the very same day that the prime minister hailed the collapse of the European Super League breakaway as a triumph for our moral sporting values, the Premier League was preparing to approve a fund financed by the super-rich, murderous Saudi state as a fit and proper owner for one of our great clubs.
The Premier League’s reasons for approving the deal, after so much delay and dispute, are seriously questionable, and appear to spring at least partly from a desire to end the exhausting, bruising legal challenge brought by Newcastle’s owner, Mike Ashley, for the right to sell to the Saudis. The key breakthrough now is that the Premier League has accepted a commitment that the state of Saudi Arabia will not have control of the club – even though the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which will buy and control the club, is a Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi state’s prodigious piracy of sports TV broadcasts in the Gulf by BeIN, owned by Qatar, the formerly subservient neighbour whose rise the Saudis intensely resent, becomes irrelevant if it can be said the owner of Newcastle, PIF, is not the state.
Even to recite all this should seem outlandish in the context of English football – “the people’s game” – and particularly a club so associated with their local identity and the regional character of their crowd. But being honest, the time has long passed to be shocked or even bemused at the takeover of the great, amiable Geordie sporting institution by a notorious and fearsome regime of a country 4,000 miles away.
It would be nice to still be able to say this is unimaginable, that after the Saudis’ heinous murder of their own citizen, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, they have been allowed to land, of all targets, on grand, beloved Newcastle United as a vehicle to launder their reputation.
But the truth of our game and our England is shocking the other way: this is very much imaginable, and is only a small further stretch on a journey football has been taking for decades. Even the fans – the Toon Army, the “Geordie nation” – are fine with the takeover, euphoric actually; the supporters’ trust has actively campaigned for it. They have patiently explained that they are at peace with all the arguments against Saudi ownership, responding that this is how the game has gone, and there is one counterargument that trumps it all: the club and the struggling, post‑Brexit, austerity-battered city of Newcastle need the Saudis’ money.
And they are right to say that this is where the game has been headed. Great English clubs, passionately supported and sentimentally glorified as homes of local belonging, became in football’s moneyed times assets for local owners to cash in and make mega-gains for themselves, by selling to international investors. Clubs, and sport itself, have also increasingly become priceless vehicles for international image-laundering by countries seeking global projection of soft power. Amnesty International has neatly titled this phenomenon sportswashing.
Through all the fog on the Tyne, the focus needs to be maintained on how appalling Saudi Arabia’s and Bin Salman’s human rights records are. Khashoggi, a distinguished journalist who wrote critically of Bin Salman’s repression and the horrendous war waged in Yemen, was killed and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated in its report that the Saudi Arabian state was responsible.
The CIA concluded in November 2018, according to authoritative US reporting, that Bin Salman ordered the murder; he has denied it. The same crown prince is chairman of the PIF, the fund approved to take over Newcastle United. Ashley was so intent on selling the club to the Saudis that he was suing the Premier League for the right to do so, backed by a Toon army desperate to get Ashley’s skinflint Sports Direct culture out of St James’ Park.
Still, more surprising than the deal now being waved through is that the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ fit and proper persons test ever threatened to block it.
The grounds for doing so were not that it is essentially mad to have countries owning and funding individual city clubs competing in football leagues in other countries. That leap was made in 2008 when Sheikh Mansour of the Abu Dhabi ruling family bought Manchester City, then funded them to become serial Premier League champions, and in 2011 when a Qatari sovereign wealth fund bought Paris St-Germain, now enriched to an agglomeration of superstars.
In the case of the Saudis, the state was not going to be barred from owning a Premier League club owing to the Khashoggi murder, or the Yemen campaign in which Abu Dhabi was a partner, because such atrocities do not fit the precise terms of a test originally designed to bar small-time crooks from taking over lower-division clubs. Instead it was the piracy of the TV coverage that appeared to have been decisive, if it was accepted that the Saudi state itself, via its PIF, was indeed the owner of the club.
Observers of the resolution to this Newcastle impasse, that the Saudi state is not the owner of the PIF, can see the centrality of the PIF to the state’s whole national strategy, set out in Vision 2030, to diversify its economy beyond a reliance on oil, as all the Gulf states must strive to do. The vision pledges to expand sport, entertainment and cultural life in Saudi Arabia and “transform the Public Investment Fund into the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund”.
Sportswashing, or building a country’s image through associating with sport’s incomparable wonder and excitements, is not a development of recent years; it has a history longer even than Hitler’s Germany hosting the 1936 Olympics. Locally, professional football ownership or sponsorship has always been a vehicle for people or companies to puff themselves up.
The first Newcastle takeover for the Premier League era saw the shopping and property development magnate Sir John Hall piling on the regional rhetoric to stir the affinities of the “Geordie nation”, before he sold his stake to Ashley in 2007 for £55m. Ashley has used the great club as a billboard for his Sports Direct retail operation, a dispiriting culture clash with the fans’ adherence to a romantic, inspirational vision for the game. Now, finally, Ashley can realise his own ambition, to recoup his outlay, and the English dealmaker Amanda Staveley achieves hers, of finally pulling off the deal with the Saudis and the property developing Reuben brothers.
We may yet be surprised, but it seems unlikely that after his claimed triumph of seeing off the Super League, Boris Johnson will raise any objection to English football’s first major development since then. At the same Conservative party conference this week, Johnson’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, hailed the Gulf monarchies, but not the 27 European Union democracies, as among “our friends and allies” with whom we should be “forging closer ties”. This is where the national game, and the nation, are today.