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Why You Should Care About the Saudi Newcastle Takeover

by Boran GÖHER

Concerns about the influence of financial matters on football have been a mainstream debate topic at least since the formation of the English Premier League back in 1992.[i] The Premier League brought about a new system in which the top clubs in English football were more isolated from the rest of the football pyramid and did not have to share their profits as much as before.


Many people expressed concern at the time that this system would bring about a massive financial gap between the top clubs and the smaller ones, making it unlikely that any smaller team could have sustained periods of success at the higher levels, even if they managed to break into the Premier League once or twice. Nobody, however, could imagine the levels of financial disparity that would later be created by financial doping, which would put even the richest of the old clubs’ finances to shame.


In 2003, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club for a total of one hundred and forty million pounds over a period of few weeks.[ii] This was an unprecedented takeover at the time, and it would only take a few years for everyone involved in the sport to understand that it was the beginning of a new era.


In just a few years, Chelsea would go on to spend millions of pounds on footballers to build a world-class football team. [iii] They would also bring in José Mourinho, the top superstar of football managers at the time. Chelsea F.C, which had only won a top-flight league title once, in the 1954-1955 season, would go on to win the Premier League title 3 more times before the end of the decade.[iv]


This process of being taken over by a massive financial force and then dominating the football scene would later be repeated with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, who have dominated the English and French football leagues, respectively. However, in their cases, there is one more aspect to the equation: sportswashing. Manchester City and PSG are both owned by at least partially state-backed business groups.[v] Which states are those? The United Arab Emirates and Qatar, respectively. Being state owned by itself may not seem like a bad thing, but remember, football clubs have massive reputation and influence across the globe, and they are inseparably linked to their owners.


Using the power of the world’s most popular sport is an attractive proposition for any country that has tarnished its reputation through shady human rights practices and authoritarian ruling in its own country. By using the viewership and fans of football, these states can build organic reputations for their clubs from the ground up and eventually pass on this reputation to their countries, all the while opening up new advertising avenues and gaining negotiation power in diplomatic matters related to the sport, such as determining the host country of a tournament. This aspect of club ownership has been criticized many times; the most famous instance of which has probably been the Amnesty International report calling out Manchester City and UAE on their sportswashing practices, signaling that the matter has become one of utmost importance, even out of football circles.[vi]


All this brings us to the newest addition to the sportswashing/financial-doping club roster, Newcastle United. Newcastle have been bought by a consortium, the most prominent member of which is the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. I think you can imagine what concerns this move has brought up, both for fans of other clubs and fans of human rights. In case you think this might be an overreaction at this stage, Newcastle fans have already started singing praises of the Saudis, so much so that British MPs have come out and condemned it.[vii] The effect will continue to increase as the club gets investment and starts to rack up trophies. If the tide does not turn, we are looking at a situation where Newcastle United becomes a more competitive club via investment, gains new fans and increased influence, and then all that leads to an improved reputation for the clubs and their owners.


What are we to do then? Well, it is not as if any of us can really influence the actions of the Saudi state, but remember, this is mostly a matter of image. So, as long as you keep in mind what is happening just below the surface, you should be resistant to sportswashing, at least on an individual level. If you want to do more, the best you can do is to spread the word. The more we all know, the less effective their propaganda.


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