Imagine being a supporter of a football club, and one day you find out that your club is about to become owned by one of the most criticized state regimes in the world. What would you do? Would you stop supporting your favorite team?
That is the moral dilemma that Newcastle United fans are currently facing. But before rushing into any conclusion, let’s have a rundown of some the facts, shall we?
Newcastle takeover 'creeps closer as chief of Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund is made director of shell company linked with the £300m deal' https://t.co/HKqacPnT6b
— MailOnline Sport (@MailSport) April 28, 2020
It is no secret now that Newcastle United is about to be purchased by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). And who’s the chairman of the PIF?
You guessed it. None other than the country’s de facto leader, Mohammad Bin Salman. Also known as MBS.
Yes, the same person who – along with the United Arab Emirates – launched in 2015 a deadly war in Yemen, killing thousands of innocent civilians (also from airstrikes on children’s buses), causing the deaths of tens of thousands due to the ongoing famine, and resulting in the worst humanitarian crisis since World War I.
The same person who was identified by the United Nations and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as the main culprit behind the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s own Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. According to these reports, Khashoggi was strangled and his body was dismembered inside the Consulate.
The same person whose close advisors had orchestrated the illegal piracy and stealing of the signal of Bein Sports channels, which have the exclusive rights to broadcast major sporting events in the Middle East region, including the Premier League, the Serie A, La Liga, and the Champions League.
Those are just the tip of the iceberg. We still haven’t mentioned the arrests of dissidents or critics of the government, the torture tactics applied on women prisoners who were jailed for demanding reforms in the country, or even Saudi Arabia still applying the death penalty on 184 people in 2019, including a teenager who was convicted at only 10 years of age, and executed at 13.
So, it’s safe to say that MBS and his entourage governing the country aren’t exactly best friends with renowned and respected human rights organizations. In fact, Amnesty International is banned from Saudi Arabia.
Why Does The PIF Want To Buy Newcastle?
After experiencing unprecedented levels of criticism and scrutiny from all over the world for its human rights violations on almost every possible level, the Saudi regime looked at sports as an exit doorway that might soften some of the pressure that is bombarding its leaders.
Reportedly, a consortium of PIF first inquired about the possibility of buying Manchester United. They found the asking price of £4B from the Glazers a bit too high, and so they searched for greener, cheaper pastures. Newcastle United came in the picture after the idea was suggested by financier Amanda Staveley, a British businesswoman notable for her connections with Middle Eastern investors.
— Jack Pitt-Brooke (@JackPittBrooke) May 2, 2020
Buying a football club will enhance the Saudi image across the world; a soft power technique aimed at making people view the country and its regime differently. This tactic is not new in football. Abu Dhabi did it with Manchester City. Qatar did it with Paris Saint-Germain in France. The UAE and Qatar are also heavily criticized for human rights violations, although their records don’t come close to that of Saudi Arabia.
When states – especially those that have little concern for human rights abuses – decide to splash their money and put it in football, it can only be described with one word: “sportswashing.”
The opportunity to buy one of the most prestigious clubs in England and the world represents a chance to rehabilitate the country’s image that had been tarnished in the past several years. Investing in a foreign country and engaging with the Western public, in addition to presenting themselves as the savior for Newcastle fans, who have grown tired of their current owner Mike Ashley, will all play part of the sportswashing method that Saudi Arabia will employ, in order to gain more supporters and minimize the number of their critics.
Newcastle United represented an unmissable prospect: A historic club with great traditions, plus a huge, iconic stadium, and fans who are hungry for glory and haven’t tasted elite-trophy success for over 50 years. In addition, the club competes in the most followed, most entertaining league in the world: The Premier League. That kind of exposure will definitely play a decisive role in making some people turn a blind eye to the country’s atrocities, and begin to think positively of its ruler.
The rules of the Premier League don’t have any regulations or structures that might obstruct this takeover. It has many guidelines regarding property piracy – which will be interesting to see the Premier League’s reaction to, especially with Saudi Arabia illegally broadcasting football matches using Bein Sports channels’ signals.
What Should Newcastle Fans Do?
So, let’s go back to our question in the beginning of this article, only with a minimal modification. Would – or should – Newcastle fans continue on supporting their team, given that their soon-to-be owner is a world-renowned violator of human rights?
The answer is simply, without a doubt, yes.
Newcastle, or club football fans in general, support their teams because they find themselves part of the identity that that football club represents. They relate to the club’s city, its history, culture, tradition. They feel as if part of a larger family. For some even, being part of a club and supporting it is their only way of actually knowing what it feels to be part of a family. It is a beautiful feeling, and something that will stay with fans forever.
The owners, however, come and go. Fans cheer on and support the club, not its owner.
The only thing that Newcastle United fans can do – along with journalists covering not only Newcastle football, but also Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain football – is to be aware of the new owner’s record on human rights, and to speak out about it.
The U.K. government should block the MBS/Saudi government acquisition of Newcastle United as ‘not in the public interest’ because of MBS’s alleged complicity in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Anything else would be total capitulation of our values https://t.co/n0S2avXhZy
— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) April 29, 2020
Journalists have fallen into the trap of normalizing clubs like Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain. They shouldn’t. Hopefully, they won’t fall in the same trap when the Newcastle acquisition is official. This is not just “another club”.
Journalists should ask the tough questions, confront the management, players, and staff on what it means to have an ownership that has nothing but disrespect for human rights thousands of miles away.
Nobody can stop this takeover from happening. Our power as football fans has limits, and we cannot – and it is not our right to – dictate who gets to buy a club and who doesn’t.
What we can do is speak out against it. We can make it known so that it does not become the norm. That way the sportswashing attempt will be unsuccessful.
Perhaps then, we’ll have rules in the future that prevent dictators from even thinking about acquiring football clubs, and destroying our beautiful game.
Feature Photo: Getty Images