Saudi takeover of Newcastle confirms football’s end as a peoples’ game

The day has gotten darker for football. The unholy trinity of oil-rooted dictatorships has completed their purchase of poster football clubs.

Dubai, then Qatar and now, at last, Saudi Arabia, have ensured that football could not be further from a moral compass. The beautiful game has become contaminated by dictatorial oil regimes. Newcastle United are a historic club, but this is a historically bad moment for the game.

The Saudi Public Investment Fund completed a £300m takeover of the club, ending Mike Ashley’s torrid ownership of the club. Somehow, the PIF legally proved separation from the Saudi state, despite the Crown Prince being its Chair. 

The takeover will entirely restructure football in a way that we have never seen before. If people felt PSG and Man City were able to buy up football as they pleased, their collective wealth amassed together is a pair of raindrops next to PIF’s ocean of wealth. 

The reaction of supporters has, disappointingly, overwhelmingly been one of relief and glee. Over 90% of members within the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust favoured the takeover. Online the reaction has been similarly one of universal euphoria, with fans chanting that they have their club back again. 

To the outsider, this might appear incredulous, but it shows the depth of the emotional disconnect between the fans and the club in the Ashley era. The sleeping giant was always dreaming about the near glories of the nineties. The fans carried those memories like wounds in the chest, a painful reminder of how far they had fallen and how far the summit was from them.

For years, Newcastle United supporters demanded investment. In the 2000s, they were still a successful club, minus the silverware, that regularly gave bloody noses to the big sides. 

Mike Ashley’s determination to suck revenue out of the club and never generate investments in terms of signings or improving facilities left the club in a state of permanent decay, rotting from the insides. 

We have seen over the years, clubs such as Bury and Bolton slip into the financial mires because of deep mismanagement. Owners run the clubs as businesses and not as community institutions. Therein lies the risk for every club in today’s hyper-capitalist sport. The risk of going bust is always there. But it doesn’t have to be like that. 

In Germany, the politics of democratic participation and association has meant far higher levels of satisfaction. Through the principles of mutuality, reciprocity and solidarity, fans have remained in control of their football clubs. Germany and its 50+1 rule is a reminder that football is more than just results, but about the feelings they create. The deep influence of money in England is perverting, tinting basic things such as patience, loyalty and trust.

We have become a much more results-orientated culture, and it’s not as though anyone can argue this has fared well for anyone. Borussia Dortmund might not be winning every year, but can anyone argue that they’re unhappier as a club and amongst the fans than Arsenal or Manchester United? Fan representation and ownership were seen as the natural solutions to the failed Super League project, but how can fans compete financially with such vast sources of wealth? While the supporters’ trust was attempting to buy a portion of their club, the community of Newcastle would struggle to raise £300m without outside investment. Fan ownership would rid of us the perverting influence of Arab dictators and American businessmen alike but how fans takeover multi-million-pound businesses is a circle that will be tricky to square.

Instead, dictatorships buying football clubs as part of their PR projects is becoming standard practice; Qatar and Dubai have used their clubs to try and clean their images, to promote their countries as tourist sites for the international world. Saudi Arabia certainly has plenty to clean off. In 2018, they were responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical of the regime, and the nation has undertaken a brutal bombing campaign of Yemen. Torture is commonplace, gender equality is non-existent and the country executes more of its own citizens than any other nation.

And too often, people have looked the other way when wondering about the source of their wealth. Likewise, fans have been content to celebrate their successes and not wonder about what they are endorsing. 

The league can support taking the knee in the fight against racism, but that is a hollow showcase of virtues when a nation that owns one of the clubs punishes homosexuality with flogging and imprisonment. Football is allowing itself to be propped up by the worst regimes in the world. Forget the principle that no state should ever have controlling shares in football clubs; we now have three clubs run by brutal dictatorships. 

Football is no longer the same;  if anyone thinks this is returning Newcastle to their fans, they are mistaken. Football, with the influx of corrosive money, has never felt further away from its fans than it has now.

For every Asian worker who died in the name of productivity in Qatar and Dubai, PSG and Man City profited. For every dissident murdered to protest against the Saudi Arabia regime, now Newcastle will prosper. There is a direct link between the persecution and violence and these clubs. Their successes will come from how these regimes brutally repress people and fans, and the game will have to live with that. 

Has football lost the right to call itself the beautiful game? It’s an ugly one, distorted by the willingness to wipe the bloodstains for regimes that we would denounce any other day. But we are now all right with allowing them to buy football clubs, to host World Cups, allowing brutality to dress up in goals and big transfer signings. It is a travesty and one of the worst things to happen to the sport.

The game now sits on the bodies of people whose struggle for rights, freedoms and justice did not deserve to be cruelly devalued like this.

1 comment
  1. I live in Newcastle and witnessed the celebrations by football fans. I never felt more ashamed. Just want to say football fans do not speak for all Geordies. The main lesson I have learned is that our democracy is easily undermined by popularism of all kinds. Its not just obvious political popularism like nationalism, jingoism, racism that history shows can lead to tyranny but any popular culture like sport fandom, music fandom or anything people ‘identify’ with can be exploited when unscrupulous politicians co-opt their fanaticism and make it serve the interests of the tyrant. Newcastle City Council might not be legally empowered to stop the takeover of United but they could protest e.g. change street names to honour victims of Saudi tyranny, hold vigils outside stadia when United play matches, fly flags at half-mast on Council property. But no one is doing this. Why? For fear of offending fans and losing their votes. Thus our freedom of speech, public protest, upholding our values and freedoms are all undermined by popularism. Buying British democracy is cheap and easy. And by linking Newcastle to Saudi politics, we have made everyone on Tyneside not only less protected by democracy but more unsafe as the conflicts of the Middle East are invited to be fought out here – not through sport but terrorism. I see these mindless football fans as traitors to democracy and enemies to their own community. I depise them. What sport is worth such dishonour? Such attack on our own hardwon human rights?

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