Newcastle’s Saudi takeover will cause faux morality of football to collapse
Welcome, Mohammed bin Salman, to the billionaire boys club. No need to wipe your feet. Although maybe, on reflection, do wash your hands. Those damned spots, eh? In the meantime pull up a chair, deploy the comms team, fire up the transfer multiplier. We’ve been expecting you. And for quite some time as it happens.
It is worth noting that the arrival of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund as owner of Newcastle United is by no means the kingdom’s first involvement with English football. That came during the black gold rush of the late 1970s, as Saudi was transformed by the world’s thirst for its natural resources, regeared almost overnight into a shining new global frontier.
In the spirit of which the Saudi sports authority decided to apply a similar process to its national football team by hiring Jimmy Hill and David Icke.
There were, sad to say, problems from the start. Icke was an early casualty. “Often tearful, he found it impossible to adjust to the Muslim environment,” Hill wrote in his autobiography, a mouthwatering intersection of the tides of global weirdness that gets pretty much buried by Hill’s greater excitement at persuading his hosts to build him a squash court.
The Saudis wanted Brian Clough and Bob Paisley. Hill got them Ronnie Allen, who, rather than learn his players’ “difficult” names, simply shouted their squad numbers at them across the canteen and training pitch. A point of no return arrived when Hill was filmed aggressively swatting away a fly during a TV interview, deeply offending his employers. “Apparently there was a huge fly problem in Saudi Arabia, of which I was completely unaware.”
No matter. Fast forward four decades, scroll past the Premier Leagues’s first wave of overseas owners – photogenic oligarchs, nation-state brand builders, baseball-capped vulture capitalists – and that journey has now been made the other way. The House of Saud is in the house. The bone-saw boys are at the door. And while Saudi ownership may raise some obvious – how shall we put it? – moral quandaries, nobody out there gets to act surprised by any of this.
The most obvious point is that Mike Ashley’s departure is a hugely welcome turn. Ashley’s ownership of Newcastle brought stasis, inflammatory managerial appointments, two relegations and worst of all a kind of viciousness, a showboating arrogance in his dealings with the club’s support. The grossest offence of the Ashley era was its joylessness, the capacity to make people who love football and love their club feel estranged, disdained and commodified. He will not be missed.
And yet, while we’re telling it like it is, there is also something wretched, hypocritical and deeply depressing in English football’s willingness to welcome into its elite members’ club the blood-soaked, repressive, deeply discriminatory Saudi state.
In this light the comparison with Ashley, the assumption that Newcastle has finally found its prince, seems to involve a degree of cognitive dissonance. Infuriating tracksuit vendor v blood-stained dictatorship. Zero-hours sport-shop contracts v beheading 37 people in a single day. Hiring Dennis Wise v bombing Yemen. Is it really obvious that one of these – the beheading one – is so much more desirable than the other?
There will of course be a hostile response to such observations, if only because football, and indeed all human experience, has become so aggressively tribal. There is a genuine conviction out there that uneasiness over a Saudi presence in English football is based in hostility towards Newcastle United. In reality the opposite is true: it is an expression of respect for the club as something of value.
Yet there is also an undeniable logic in the argument that this is nobody else’s business; that the world is bent a certain way; and that it isn’t Newcastle’s job to fix it.
Welcome to English football 2021, a place where nobody is really clean. From the first stirrings of the Deep Thatcherite model, to the Scudamore globalism years, to laundromat finances, hidden investors, blood money at three removes, the Premier League hasn’t just thrown its moral compass overboard. It never actually brought one on deck in the first place.
And so we arrive at a place where there can be no good owners, no white knights, no sane model capable of competing, or even any way of fixing this. Why should Newcastle alone carry that flag? Why don’t we all just dive in and gorge ourselves on the entrails?
There are two points worth making about this. First, there is still such a thing as a question of degree. Walk arm-in-arm with the Saudi state and the faux morality around football simply collapses. By way of example, the chief operator behind the fund that will act as the Premier League’s newest member, is, according to US intelligence, personally responsible for ordering the murder of a Saudi citizen who was dismembered.
Is that going to work? How closely does this – bone-sawing your political opponents – fit with that idea of governance, of integrity, of benevolent control of the national asset? What is the correct response here? Apart, obviously, from “Announce Mbappé”?
Another awkward area. Homosexuality is punishable in Saudi Arabia by public whipping or chemical castration. How does this play out with Rainbow Laces day? Are we still against all forms of discrimination? Because it might start to look as though we don’t actually mean all this. How about the treatment of foreign workers? How about Protocols-of-the-Elders-of-Zion-level antisemitism? How exactly does that square with no room for racism?
English football is stocked full of fine words on these topics, mixed with a baffling level of impotence when it comes to getting things done, to genuinely challenging those barriers and prejudices in our own society. Here, right at the top table, fit and proper, unbuckling its wallet, is a presence that directly challenges those platitudes. But then, as ever, money writes its own rules.
In reality it is possible to impose a little regulation. There was a great deal of performative dismay around the European Super League. The Premier League realised, as its business was being taken out from under its feet, that it was in fact a community entity. The British government discovered that it wanted to regulate football. We are awaiting the results of a fan-led review that seems likely to suggest a “regulator”, which may mean something, or anything, or nothing.
It is surely worth factoring in why this is happening. It’s not about sport. It’s not even about money. English football is not a vast global industry or a good bet for a handsome return. Newcastle United’s annual turnover is a relatively minuscule £170m. So why go through this mill?
It doesn’t take an Icke-level conspiracy theory to see that the Premier League has become a soft power tool, that this is about reach, about using what were once community clubs as projector screens to the world. Is it really desirable, or a sensible long-term plan, to sell that capacity to whichever sovereign state happens to be passing?
For now it seems worth saying, if only as a measure of the current level of our national discourse, that the arrival of the Saudi state as owners of Newcastle United will not be greeted with protest and moral unease, but with hand-rubbing glee and gossip about prospective signings. According to those close to the action this will be a restructure by stealth, not an instant splurge. Either way English football has reached a particular kind of extreme here. It seems pointless to say be careful what you wish for. It’s already here.