Newcastle's Saudi takeover

What to make of Newcastle's Saudi takeover?

What to make of Newcastle's Saudi takeover?

The Toon fans seem to love it, donning mock-Arab garb, cheering deliriously the demise of long-term unpopular owner Mike Ashley and finally entertaining realistic dreams of trophies, payback for their boisterous and unrequited support.

Perhaps we don't get the fervour if we live outside Tyneside. Newcastle is a historic town with a very distinctive accent and crucially is far from England's major cities, closer to Edinburgh in Scotland than Manchester in fact. Football puts this regional city on the map. 

The black and white shirts are their army. How else can we explain why a club starved of success maintains such a fervent following, selling out a 52,000 capacity stadium quite easily.

Newcastle's last heyday was over a century ago, a purple patch of three league titles and an F.A. Cup between 1904 and 1910. More recently they finished second in the Premier League in 1996 and '97 and lost successive F.A. Cup finals in '98 and '99 but their trophy room remains barren in most living memories, their last cup the Europa League forerunner the Fairs Cup in 1969.

The Toon's last domestic victory was winning the F.A. Cup in 1955. 2027 will be a hundred years since their last league championship.

From that side of the argument, we should at least understand why Saudi flags were being joyfully flown by Geordies outside St James' Park on news of the takeover. And Ashley had been despised on Tyneside for so long any alternative owner would have felt like a godsend for the fans. Finally, the lure of the world's biggest oil exporter buying the club, effectively making the Magpies the richest club on earth, was just too relishing to resist.

With the Saudi state behind it, Newcastle now have ten times the wealth of Manchester City at their disposal. The new owners insist that the Public Investment Fund (PIF) and the House of Saud are poles apart, yet this is patent nonsense: The nation's leader Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) is also chairman of the PIF, the nation's sovereign wealth fund.

So that leads us to the question of a level playing field for clubs and the human rights issues. We are now clearly in the age of petroclubs with a number of teams now part of the fossil fuels industries - the Saudis own Newcastle, Abu Dhabi owns Manchester City, Qatar owns PSG and Roman Abramovich, a Russian gas-made man, owns Chelsea.

With these arsenals at their disposal, it is no surprise to see Norwich City, joint-owned by celebrity chef Delia Smith, at the foot of the Premier League table and hammered 7-0 by Chelsea on Saturday. One place above them sit Newcastle, currently on course for relegation but expecting a spending spree in the January transfer window to keep them above the drop zone.

UEFA brought in Financial Fair Play in 2009 in an effort to help poorer clubs but the Court for Arbitration for Sport let Manchester City off the hook last year following a clear breach, while this year the whole FFP scheme was suspended in light of the fall in revenues during the Covid pandemic, allowing clubs to go on another spree, months after their Superleague plan had been killed off.

Jonathan Wilson in The Blizzard wrote,

"A system designed to protect the existing elites ended up forcing Messi's move from Barca to PSG."

Toon legend Alan Shearer welcomed the Saudi takeover and said it allowed a spotlight to be shone on the human rights issues. Saudi Arabia is not exactly famous for its tolerance and the latest report by Human Rights Watch makes for sobering reading.

David Conn, the football financial expert, summarises the zeitgeist nicely:

"Clubs and sport itself have become increasingly priceless vehicles for international image-laundering by countries seeking global projection of soft power. Amnesty International has neatly titled this phenomenon sportswashing."

One could of course argue that Qatar, Russia and Abu Dhabi are little more virtuous than the Saudis and given our occidental addiction to oil and its by-products, who are we really to talk? Only a few weeks ago, Britons queued desperately  across the land for petrol as refineries ran out of tanker drivers post-Brexit. Never mind the planet, we want to burn fossil fuels cried the nation which is about to host the COP26 Climate Summit.

In a wholly unexpected show of political comment on the terraces, Crystal Palace fans unfurled a huge banner at the weekend to greet Newcastle's new owners with a cartoon of MBS beside the Premier League chief Richard Masters, a magpie, cheering Toon fans and list of human rights abuses.

I am racking my brains to remember the last time English fans were so stridently political and am at a loss. Taking the knee does not come close.

So, what happens next? Well, nothing, just as nothing meaningful happened after Jamal Kashoggi disappeared in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in full view of the world. Money talks.

UEFA has promised a revised FFP by 2022 so we will have to wait and see if the Saudi oil dollars will effortlessly haul the Toon to the top. As for the Premier League's "fit and proper" test for new club owners, that is obviously not worth the paper it is printed on.

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