We should be angry at the prospect of the Saudi state taking over Newcastle, but angry at the authorities, not supporters who welcome Mike Ashley’s departure…
The problem with a bad owner of a football club is not just the damage they can do themselves. That’s a large part of it, of course, but an owner can potentially do more harm in the long-term by reaching a point of unpopularity that fans will accept absolutely anyone to replace them.
It’s perfectly understandable that Newcastle United fans will welcome anyone but Mike Ashley, after 13 years of being treated like morons, of underinvestment and laughable amateurism, of reaching a point where the biggest hero in the club’s modern history, Kevin Keegan, no longer feels welcome at St James’s Park. Ashley is a menace, a blight on football and we should all be glad when he’s gone.
The problem is that the people said to be replacing him are worse. Reports indicate that Newcastle are on the verge of finally being taken over, some 11-and-a-half years since Ashley first announced that he was putting the club up for sale, by a group of investors ‘backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.’
There have already been some pretty emphatic moral and logical gymnastics from some Newcastle fans on the internet, trying to pretend that this is something it isn’t. This is not merely an innocent investment group looking to get into the English football business. If this takeover goes through, Newcastle United will essentially become an arm of the Saudi Arabian state.
You probably don’t need us to repeat the various flavours of human rights abuses that the Saudi state is and has been responsible for, but we’re going to do it anyway. Most notoriously in recent times, this is the state who ordered and carried out the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, lied about their involvement in it, then admitted involvement but claimed it was the work of rogue agents inside their Istanbul embassy.
In March, the women’s rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul was put on trial in Riyadh after two years detention, for the crimes of protesting against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia and for an end to the ‘male guardianship’ system. “In prison, Loujain has suffered torture, sexual abuse and solitary confinement – compounding the fact that she has been deprived of her freedom unjustly for almost two years now,” said Lynn Maalouf from Amnesty International.
Last December, the lawyer and human rights campaigner Waleed Abu al-Khair went on hunger strike, having been imprisoned on charges stemming from criticising the Saudi regime, sentenced to 15 years behind bars, and it’s safe to say this won’t exactly be the jail where Henry and Paulie did their time in Goodfellas.
These cases are just the result of a few minutes’ search. We could go on. We probably should go on. To state the obvious, this is not who anyone should want using the name of a club to try and cleanse their image in the western world, to treat a 128-year-old institution as a sportswashing tool.
The temptation to make excuses is strong: what the owners do outside of the sport is nothing to do with Newcastle; lots of clubs have morally suspect backers; we’re just trying to level the playing field. That would be understandable too, after over a decade of Mike Ashley: when you haven’t had a drink in a week, a bottle of cloudy piss can look appealing.
But of course it has everything to do with Newcastle; yes, other clubs have morally suspect backers, but that should be an argument against allowing more, not for it; the playing field might be levelled, but at what cost?
It would be nice if there was a similar uproar to the one that caused Liverpool and Tottenham to reverse their decision to use the government furlough scheme, but while it was a comfort to see that fans’ voices can still have an impact, can still be listened to, it would almost certainly be pointless in this instance. By this point Ashley doesn’t care, and anyone involved on the Saudi side has already made their decision.
But it shouldn’t be up to the fans to force this point. Why is the Premier League or FA letting this happen? We have tests to disqualify people from running or owning football clubs for financial or business reasons, but why not moral reasons? Of course, the question of where a moral line can be drawn is a potentially sticky one, but we can surely all agree that being part of a regime that chops up people into travel-sized pieces and imprisons protestors, is the side of the line we don’t want anything to do with.
The one thing we shouldn’t necessarily do is harshly judge Newcastle fans who continue to support the club, even with the new owners. It would be incredibly easy to be absolutist about this, and say that anyone paying money to watch a club controlled by morally reprehensible people is tacitly endorsing those people.
But it’s not as simple as that. You would hope Newcastle fans would at least feel conflicted in to some degree, and many may well walk away, thinking that the club they once loved is gone and that they cannot justify continuing to support them.
Yet walking away from something that forms such a crucial part of your identity, that has given you joy, hope or comfort down the years, is not straightforward. You are essentially cutting out a huge chunk of your existence, and while in cold, moral terms it might seem indefensible to carry on supporting Newcastle if this takeover goes through, in reality it’s not as easy as that. We all know that following a football club often doesn’t have much to do with logic.
Newcastle aren’t the first club to be used in this manner. They won’t be the last either. But anger shouldn’t be directed at the people who have no power to stop it.
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