IT’S a sign of the times, has a hint of double standards about it, and confirms the shallow nature of football with its mislaid moral compass. There’s no shortage of superlatives to describe what Newcastle United could achieve under their new ownership, but equally, there’s no lack of scepticism about the nature of the regime that’s rolling into Tyneside.
All said and done, the enthusiasm for the new owners demonstrates football will, if it is convenient, put aside any misgivings about finance or politics if it means the team is successful. In short, 75% of Newcastle fans will forget that Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records in the modern world as long as the club ends half a century of chronic under-achievement.
Whether it be a particularly aggressive player, mind-numbing defensive tactics, an obnoxious egotistical manager, a gun-running owner or an outspoken chairman, football fans will forgive almost anything, while berating other clubs for possessing a Mourinho, Barton or Bates. Even Donald Trump would be welcomed at a football club if it meant Champions League football on a regular basis.
Newcastle are merely the latest club to take the “king’s shilling” and attempt to join the elite. Obscene wealth is one thing, and very sensitive in this era of crisis and division, but bringing representation of a nation that has a dreadful human rights record is another. But are Newcastle United any different from the British government, who count the Saudis as allies? And do the owners of Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, to name but three, stand up to close scrutiny? The horse has certainly bolted and Newcastle are just joining the race – at least that’s what some will say as they raise their next glass of Brown Ale.
Indeed, the Newcastle magazine, The Mag, has already posted a “snowflakes alert”, describing negative comments on the takeover as coming from “people who would rather see it stopped in its tracks and instead retain the poisonous Ashley regime”. Rather naively, they refer to the misdemeanours of the British Empire to insist that current day Saudi Arabia’s hardline approach pales into insignificance.
But not everyone can allow it to pass without attempting to unmask the “villain”. Felix Jakens of Amnesty International considers the Saudi consortium’s takeover is a blatant act of “sportswashing” and attempts to glamourise a despicable human rights record. With the murder of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi still fresh in the memory and Saudi Arabia’s part in the military-led coalition in Yemen well documented, Newcastle are losing the unloved Mike Ashley for what many see as a brutal administration. The Daily Mirror commented that Newcastle will become something of a propaganda vehicle for Saudi Arabia, while TalkSport said Newcastle fans will be morally torn about a change of ownership. “Careful what you wish for,” said one report.
Rod Liddle of The Times noted: “I am well aware that ethics and Premier League football rarely belong in the same sentence. But Saudi Arabia? Allies they may well be, but few would argue that the country is a bastion of democracy, human rights and progressive, liberal thinking.”
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has compiled a table of the Premier League based on owner wealth and Newcastle come out on top with the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund worth £ 320 billion.
For those that can live with the marriage of one of England’s most passionate clubs with an “autocratic sandpit” to quote The Times, this will be an exciting period for Newcastle United, one that will surely end the club’s long and ludicrous trophy drought. On the other hand, this acquisition will receive heavy criticism for as long as we care about the lives of citizens in other countries and continents. It’s a sentiment that is under pressure at the moment, but there are enough people out there who will question the morals behind the transaction. That said, football is just part of a much broader hypocrisy and we should not forget that. Before fans of other clubs start to abuse their fellow supporters, they should ask themselves, “what would you do if the same was to happen at your club?”.