Saudi sports washing

Saudi sports washing

Newcastle United fans can enjoy the sweetness of Mike Ashley’s departure, but the Saudi acquisition of the club still leaves a bitter taste in the beautiful game

Photo by Christopher Thomond for The Guardian.

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Jake Mathieson

7th October is a date that will be firmly marked onto calendars in black ink for many years to come for the fans of Newcastle United. However, simultaneously this takeover has severely stained the reputation of the Premier League.

It is being led by Amanda Staveley of PCP Capital Partners but controversially it be majority backed by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) with an estimated worth of over £250bn.

There are two sides to this riyal. On one side there is the pure joy of the forever faithful Toon army. And on the other: a dismal human rights record and widespread belief that Crown Prince and the Chair of the PIF, Mohammed bin Salem, was responsible behind the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

You cannot impede the ecstasy and relief that the Magpies’ fans will be feeling. In the fourteen-year tenure of Mike Ashley, they’ve been relegated twice and faced many more battles to avoid the drop. 

A survey conducted by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust stated that 93.8% of their members were in favour of the takeover. For the first time in close to two decades, Newcastle fans are allowed to dream- this, they say, is all they ever wanted. For committed football fans, the right to dream is a bare minimum – and Ashley failed to provide on these grounds. It was clear for so long that that the Sports Direct owner had been draining the soul from this grand football club, and in the scenes of fans celebrating outside St. James’ Park, their excitement for the future and that of his departure was tangible.

On the pitch, the coming years at Newcastle United will be intriguing to observe. Already, manager Steve Bruce has become the first casualty of the new regime. Even without the new ownership, his job would be in question, with the club having spent the large majority of the season in the relegation zone. Whoever replaces the veteran Geordie will have a job on their hands in stabilising the side. They will need to oversee the installation of a competent football infrastructure at the club, something that has obviously been lacking. 

Head of Sports and Development at Lokomotiv Moscow, Ralf Rangnick, a German with an eye for detail, has been touted as a potential replacement for Bruce. Having formerly coached the likes of RB Leipzig and FC Schalke, his appointment would be a step in the right direction. 

The truth of the matter is the entire playing and coaching side of the operation needs an overhaul, and that will take time- something that is rarely afforded in football. If the new decision-makers at the club hold their nerve and make smart footballing appointments, the money will take care of itself. The Magpies’ rise to superpower status may unfold at a pace never seen before. 

St. James’ Park looks down on the city from the top of a hill. Ironically, this is a perfect metaphor for the acquisition: just as the stadium stands over the city it represents, the club’s new owners have cast a shadow over the Premier League. The authorities should be facing huge questions over how they’ve allowed entry to a financial arm of the Saudi royal family. Their regime still issues beatings, chemical castrations, life imprisonment and sometimes the death penalty for homosexuality. 

Cries of sports washing – a practice used by a group to improve its reputation through sport whilst directing attention away from a poor human rights record – are well-founded and extremely serious. Amnesty International have strongly condemned the move, describing the takeover as “atrocious”. From the Premier League, there has been deafening silence. It leaves such a bitter taste in the mouth after the sweetness of Mike Ashley’s departure. He was a terrible football owner – there is no doubting that – but when you see the whole picture, his Saudi successors are trying to paint a narrative that suits themselves and defends the indefensible. 

It is a shame as the stench of sports washing will forever cling to the famous black and white strip as they look down their noses at the rest of the league.