Today
Tue 26 October 2021

As the Government turns its gaze to the regulation of football, the takeover of Newcastle United shows the urgent need for reform, says Adrian Goldberg

The takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is sweetly timed – almost akin to an Alan Shearer volley. It has arrived as Sports Minister Tracey Crouch puts the finishing touches to her ‘fan-led’ review of football, which is expected to recommend the appointment of an independent, government-backed regulator to oversee the game.

Whether or not such a radical proposal will win the support of ministers and MPs remains to be seen, but installing the Saudis now at least guarantees that the Premier League, a competition addicted to cash from questionable sources, can get its latest financial fix.

The Premier League has allowed Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich to lavish millions on Chelsea, and the oil state of Abu Dhabi to ‘sport-wash’ their reputation at Manchester City. So why not the Saudis?

When the Newcastle sale was first mooted in April 2020, Amnesty International’s Head of Campaigns Felix Jakens detailed a long list of reasons to oppose the buyout. He described Saudi Arabia as “one of the most prolific users of the death penalty,” and pointed out that “those executions can be carried out by beheading”. Other Saudi human rights abuses include the imprisonment of political dissenters, suppression of women’s rights and the criminalisation of the LGBT community.

The country’s military stands accused of targeting civilians during the conflict in Yemen, while its ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) was implicated in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul in 2018. Although MbS denied any involvement, US Intelligence reports and the United Nations suggested the murder was linked to those at the top of the Saudi Government.

Jakens said the Newcastle buyout, “gives the opportunity to create a different narrative about Saudi Arabia, which isn’t about the human rights violations, their bombing in Yemen, the killing of journalists – but about them being a progressive, internationally focussed country that’s investing heavily in sport.”

Regardless, the Premier League’s primary concern with the deal wasn’t the Gulf state’s appalling human rights record. Typically for an organisation founded on the desire to make money for the biggest clubs from TV deals, the real stumbling block was a row over broadcasting rights.

Following a diplomatic spat in 2017, Saudi Arabia banned subscriptions to BeIn Sports, which screens Premier League matches in the Middle East, because it’s based in the neighbouring (and rival) state of Qatar.

Viewers in Saudi were instead encouraged to watch matches on the state sanctioned beoutQ channel, which was effectively accused by the Premier League of piracy, until a reconciliation between the nations earlier this year saw the BeIn blockade lifted.

Once that conflict was resolved, all that was left was for the Premier League to persuade itself that the Saudi state would not control Newcastle. Having received “legally binding assurances” to this effect, it blithely declared that the Public Investment Fund (which is bankrolling 80% of the £300 million sale price) had passed its ‘owners and directors’ test.

The case demonstrates precisely why football can’t be trusted to govern its own affairs. 


Association and Implication

Whatever the role of the Saudi Government in the day-to-day running of Newcastle (and let’s face it, you’re unlikely to find a Crown Prince standing on the touchline discussing the finer points of a 4-4-2 formation), the fact remains that MbS is the chairman of the Public Investment Fund, which aims to secure the country’s future beyond oil.

The Fund, it’s worth noting, is reportedly implicated in Khashoggi’s murder, amid claims that it chartered the plane that flew his killers to Turkey.

Is it credible to believe that if MbS saw hundreds of millions of pounds being squandered on poor signings at St James’s Park, he would simply sit on his hands? And what sanctions could the Premier League realistically impose if he does become actively involved?

North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll offers some salient counterpoints – not least the fact that since the beginning of the conflict in Yemen in 2015, the UK Government has sanctioned arms sales worth £20 billion to Saudi Arabia. He has also questions the “colonial” lens through which we see human rights, and argues that “it was a British Prime Minister who lied to parliament and took us into an illegal war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and 179 British service men and women.”

The key difference is that Tony Blair has since been ousted from office by his colleagues and his party replaced at a general election. Anyone caught attempting to topple MbS would face jail, torture and death.

Mike Baker, a spokesman for the pressure group Fair Game, which is campaigning for an independent regulator of the football industry, said:

“Our line is simple. If you have conducted any activity in the last 10 years that would have broken the law in the UK then you are not fit and proper to be an owner of a football club.

“Newcastle United has a long, proud history. That history has been hijacked by a country with a serious international image problem; a nation that executes journalists and treats women horrendously.

“If the Premier League believes that the Saudi Government is fit and proper, then frankly they have just made the case for an independent regulator even stronger.”

Newcastle supporters, weary of previous owner Mike Ashley, seem to have uncritically embraced their new owners. But, beyond Tyneside, this has all the makings of another public relations disaster for English football.

Only a few months ago, the self-proclaimed ‘big six’ clubs sought to take their place in a new European Super League, which would have guaranteed a permanent place at the top table for its wealthy founding members, no matter how poorly they performed on the pitch. Only a fierce backlash by fans and the Government persuaded them to stand down.

This fiasco prompted Boris Johnson to commission Tracey Crouch’s review. The Conservative MP now has an opportunity – perhaps the final one – to tame the greed of a sport which has once again shown that it places money above morality.

Adrian Goldberg is an Ambassador for Fair Game. His film ‘Keepy Uppy – How The Premier League Killed Football’ is available now on YouTube

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