January 2015: Newcastle United were at Leicester City in the FA Cup. As always in the Cup, Newcastle sent a reserve team, full of fringe players, the headliners have held back to take care of the real deal of finishing 15th in the league. Newcastle, as his fans who traveled 200 miles to watch their team expected, duly lost. It was not the result, but the predictability of it that they protested.
“We don’t demand a winning team,” said one banner, “We demand a trying club.” The one simple sentence captured it all: the pain and resentment, angst and fury, of years spent under the dark ownership of their club’s Mike Ashley. A time when the British billionaire seemed to take pleasure in draining the hope of his own fans. The tagline has since become familiar, while the banner itself made another appearance last week. This time it was not a rallying cry for an uprising; it was the story of a battle won.
Ashley, finally what’s gone. Suddenly, Newcastle had gone from irrelevant underperformance to the richest club in football, backed by the unimaginable wealth of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the investment vehicle of Saudi Arabia, including Mohammed. bin Salman, the country’s crown prince and de facto ruler, is the president. Three fan groups For fans, the change was enough to gather outside the thobes club’s famous St James’s Park stadium and he addresses and waves the Saudi flag while singing that their club has at least been returned to them.
There are also many fans who are worried about this connection, the kingdom’s record on women’s and gay rights, its dissidents per se, the brutal and relentless war in Yemen, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But there are many others – according to a poll last year, 97% of fans were in favor of the Saudi takeover – who were willing to turn a blind eye to this ethical dilemma.
These fans argue that their new owner is no worse than the owners of Manchester City in Abu Dhabi, or that Liverpool FC is sponsored by a bank accused of laundering the profits of the drug cartels. They also argue that if Britain is happy to sell arms to the Saudis, it might as well sell its football teams. Then there are still others – those who abused Khashoggi’s widow for daring to challenge the morals of the takeover – who are perfectly happy to embrace her.
Reasons to buy PIF didn’t buy Newcastle because they love football or the leafy city of North East England. He did it to diversify his economy, to forge strategic allegiances in sport and culture to rehabilitate his image, to associate Saudi Arabia with football before associating it with the starving children of Yemen. Newcastle United and those fans are used, just like Manchester City, PSG or Chelsea – or football as a whole – are used by those with different axes to grind. But the blame should also fall on the authorities who have allowed this to happen time and time again – the Premier League, UEFA, FIFA, bodies that are supposed to protect and cherish the sport, but instead sold it to the highest bidder. . To the natural, logical, if not inevitable, conclusion that the only way for clubs to compete, the only way for owners to restore hope, is through money. And Saudi Arabia has the most money.