As the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund prepares to make Newcastle United its star signing, Newcastle fans should realise that money and glory comes at a price, one they will regret paying.
With Newcastle United on the precipice of the end of the Mike Ashley era, there is much joy and excitement amongst Newcastle supporters. The thirteen-year reign of Ashley has become as renowned for its lack of hope, ambition and excitement as it has for its mistreatment of club legends such as Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan, men the supporters adore yet were treated with disdain, disrespect and disregard by the owner and his team. The stagnation of the football club has been categorised by two relegations under Ashley’s stewardship, in comparison to twice in forty-five years before his arrival at St. James’ Park, and compounded by the decision to allow Rafa Benitez, an elite manager with a long-term plan to improve standards within the whole club and to push for success, to depart last summer. With this season marking the first time under Ashley that Newcastle have progressed past the fourth round of the FA Cup, and with the level of ambition within the club being to spend as little as possible to achieve seventeenth position, the prospect of future years under Ashley is a grim one for the fans.
Anyone can understand why the prospect of an ownership cabal with more financial muscle than the rest of the Premier League combined – the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia alone has an estimated net worth of almost eleven times that of Sheikh Mansour, owner of Manchester City – is so enticing. Even if Financial Fair Play limits the use of such wealth, it would be impossible for any fans not to be excited at what their club could become, least of all a fan base that, last year, passed half a century without a major trophy, and last won a domestic honour sixty-five years ago.
Yet, the question remains: Should Newcastle fans be so welcoming of Saudi state ownership? Miguel Delaney, Chief Football Writer of the Independent, has been vocal in his criticisms of the prospective takeover and, while his suggestion that Newcastle fans should wave a banner of Jamal Khashoggi at every home game is unrealistic, the concerns he raises about the ethics and morals around Saudi ownership of Newcastle are very fair. This is no ordinary takeover; these are no ordinary owners.
Mike Ashley may be an unexciting, unadventurous owner for a football club, a man who runs his businesses ‘like Victorian workhouses’ and pays less than the minimum wage, but he has never been allegedly linked to the September 11th terrorist attack on America, unlike the Saudi state. Mike Ashley has never had a journalist executed for dissent, unlike the Saudi state are alleged to have done. Mike Ashley has not beheaded people for admitting being homosexual while they were being tortured, unlike the Saudi state. Mike Ashley did not bomb Yemen last month, unlike the Saudi state. Mike Ashley does not force women to be under the custodianship of a man for their entire life, he does not arrest women who flee domestic abuse and return them to their partners, nor does he throw women’s rights activists into prison under the guise of treason, unlike the Saudi state.
Amnesty International have written to the Premier League expressing grave concern over the takeover, with Amnesty UK director Kate Allen saying:
“So long as these questions (concerning Saudi Arabia’s human rights record) remain unaddressed, the Premier League is putting itself at risk of becoming a patsy of those who want to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral, in breach of international law and at odds with the values of the Premier League and the global footballing community.”
Not only should Amnesty International's criticisms be heard, their message should be absorbed by every Newcastle fan.
The response to the concerns around the Saudi takeover of Newcastle are understandable. The main arguments are, ‘If the government will deal with them, why shouldn’t a football club?’ ‘Would this outrage over the takeover be happening if it was a different club being bought, rather than Newcastle?’ ‘I just want to support my team, the morals about it are for other people who know more about it than me.’ All three of these points are fair. Football fans are not politicians, so cannot influence the international policy of government. They have very little leverage with regards to club ownership – if Newcastle fans had the power to decide their owner, Mike Ashley would have been gone long, long ago. Football, for the vast majority of people, is an escape from the pressures of modern life, the stresses of work and family, ninety minutes a week where all else can be forgotten and they can lose themselves in the competitive duel of eleven men versus eleven men, us versus them, in an exciting, enthralling but ultimately meaningless game of kicking the ball into a net. People don’t watch football to think about politics, they watch it as an escape. Yet, the problem for Newcastle fans is that, should the Saudis become owners of the club, Newcastle will forever be political, perhaps the most political of all football clubs.
What Newcastle fans have wanted for a decade is to get their club back, to have a team that represents them who they can be proud of. Kevin Keegan, when asked about Mike Ashley’s ownership, famously said:
“Don’t ever give up on your club. Keep supporting it, it’s your club and, trust me, one day you will get your club back and it will be everything you wanted it to be.”
If the Saudi takeover goes through and the club is backed with even a tiny percentage of PIF’s wealth, Newcastle United will, in time, be as successful as every fan dreams it could be. Whatever success is achieved will feel wonderful, in the moment. If Newcastle win the Premier League, fans will cry with joy, a moment they never thought could happen realised. If Newcastle go on to win the Champions League, playing adventurous football the likes of which the world has never seen, the fans would be ecstatic, in the moment. Yet, it wouldn’t be the success of Newcastle United, a club that strove, that fought, that overcame and, against all odds, became the best in the land. It wouldn’t be the club the fans dreamed of. It wouldn’t be a club to be proud of, and they wouldn’t be successes to be treasured. It would be a different club altogether.
If the Saudi takeover goes through, Newcastle United will never be the club of their fans that Keegan talked of, and it will never be everything they wanted it to be. It will be a vehicle to manipulate and rehabilitate the image of murderous despots to a Western audience. The successes would be engineered, false glory achieved by blowing the rest of the world away through unparalleled wealth, through dirty money. The cheering of the fans as trophies are raised would not drown out the cries of the tortured, the blasts of the bombs and the blood of the beheaded.
We’d watch our players wear rainbow laces and our club website spread messages of inclusivity, while our owner viciously kills men for loving other men and imprisons women for wanting to be seen as equals. We’d buy replica shirts and fill stadiums while our owner executes journalists for writing criticisms of their regime. We’d sing songs of being the greatest supporters the world has ever known, despite having sold our souls for some shiny trinkets and a few more goals.
And, as the trophies pour in, we’d realise that there would be something missing. There would be an emptiness, a hollow feeling. There we would be, achieving everything we always dreamed Newcastle United could achieve, and it would mean little, because we’ll know it was a mirage. We’ll know Yemeni children died so we could win the FA Cup. We’ll know gay men were executed so we could upgrade Steve Bruce. And we’ll know that it isn’t our success. It isn’t success at all. It’s financial doping of the worst kind, and the cost of glory is making some of the most sickening, evil people alive more palatable to our society.
Newcastle fans have long joked about selling their souls to win an FA Cup. We are about to find out just how empty success is without a soul and, when we do, we’ll realise that, rather than giving us our club back, the Saudis have taken everything it is meant to represent away from us. By that stage, it’ll be too late. Newcastle United, the club of Kevin Keegan, of Alan Shearer, of Jackie Milburn, will be long gone, and we will never be able to get it back.