There was a sport there.
Football has never been pure. There have always been the rich looking to improve their reputation by investing in clubs. Even in the amateur days, football was rotten, amateurism itself ultimately being a shell in an attempt to prevent the lower classes from taking over the game.
Clubs have always been owned by dictators, drug lords, crooks and crooks. And yet, in England certainly, a spirit has somehow endured. The clubs have become emblematic of their regions, repositories of the spirit of the inhabitants. Nowhere was this more true than in Newcastle, where the stadium rises on a hill above the city, a clearly visible part of the skyline. And now it’s just another club owned by a foreign state, an oligarch, a billionaire or a hedge fund, another patrimonial asset sold to a foreign investor, a pawn in the great games of global capitalism and diplomatic policy.
Which makes the footage of fans at St James’ Park on Thursday happily singing their club’s comeback hopelessly poignant. It’s hard to imagine a way by which it could be pulled out any deeper. It is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, a kingdom described to the House of Commons three years ago by Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah as “a murderous state.”
The PIF is, insists the Premier League, an entity “separate” from the state of Saudi Arabia. Maybe if you say the word often enough, you can even convince yourself it’s true. Nothing, after all, says more distinctly than the fact that it is chaired by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.
The entities are so separate, in fact, that on the board of the PIF sits Majid al-Qasabi, the acting media minister responsible for ending beoutQ’s piracy of the Doha-based broadcaster beIN Sports. The reinstatement of beIN’s license in Saudi Arabia required the PIF to engage directly with the Saudi General Competition Authority. What could be more separate than that?
The Premier League is talking about having legally binding separation guarantees, although it is difficult to determine what they are. After all, getting independent legal advice in Saudi Arabia is next to impossible, and the idea of the Premier League taking legal action against the Saudi state is downright laughable, given its inability to bring civil action in Saudi Arabia against beoutQ. (Which is one of the biggest governance issues in modern football: many owners are so wealthy that they are in fact irresponsible.)
Does the Premier League care? Bird & Bird, a law firm operating for the Premier League, employed a number of experts to determine whether there is indeed a separation between the PIF and the Saudi state. At least three of them concluded that was not the case, with one having submitted Saudi government documents describing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the ultimate beneficial owner of the PIF. All three say they have been ignored since July, when the Qatari president of beIN, the president of Paris Saint-Germain, Nasser al-Khelaifi, first had informal talks with the PIF in Doha, a necessary step to get out of the dead end.
The Premier League stresses that hacking was not the reason for the initial blockade of the buyout. On the contrary, PIF had not completed form four, relating to the directors and owners test. He only filled out this form after the hacking problem had been resolved; it seems reasonable to suggest that he did not fill out this form until he knew he would pass. The dialogue has been going on for several months; that a solution has been found should be a relief for all concerned, given Bin Salman’s warning to Boris Johnson that Anglo-Saudi relations would suffer if the deal continued to be blocked.
As it stands, the idea of separation is a useful fig leaf for everyone. This means that football – the Premier League, the fans, the media – can continue to watch sport without having to worry about women’s rights or gay rights or the rights of religious minorities. We can wonder if Newcastle could sign Philippe Coutinho or Eden Hazard rather than worry about murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi or jailed blogger Raif Badawi.
Fans talk about entering a new era of hope and excitement, a self-absorption that seems sadly typical of the times. They talk about their suffering, because it is the great motto of modern fandom. Liverpool fans suffered from the 30-year drought between league titles, when they won just four League Cups, three FA Cups and one Champions League; Manchester City fans have endured their years of appreciated laughter; no one, apparently, can comprehend the suffering of a Newcastle fan whose average position during Mike Ashley’s 14 year reign has been the 13th. Everyone suffers, and this can be used to justify, it seems, almost anything, even if it means ignoring the real suffering, that which occurs in a prison cell or a prison yard or in a room. discreet of a consulate.
Ian Lavery, the MP for Wansbeck and holder of a Newcastle season pass, was so disgusted by the sponsorship deal with payday loan company Wonga that he sworn never to set foot in St James again until they are gone. Yet last year he sent a letter to the select committee of digital, culture, media and sport MPs in an attempt to force the Premier League to explain their decision to block the takeover.
Onwurah’s concerns over Saudi Arabia have apparently vanished and as she praised fans for supporting the takeover, she was thanked by Amanda Staveley’s husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi, once the deal is concluded.
But in fact it is not complicated. Despite all the obscurations and hypocrisy, all the ambiguities and falsehoods, there is only one question that Newcastle fans and football in general need to ask themselves: what do you think of torture and murder?