As the takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund loomed closer this week, an uplifting tweet from Faustino Asprilla began doing the rounds. “Mike Ashley saw fans of Newcastle like bar codes, hopefully that will end soon this team is for lovers not for just merchandisers,” Asprilla wrote, focusing on the departure of the unloved current ownership.
Even within the tin-eared nexus of social media there is an element of double-take about the response. To date Asprilla’s tweet has received 8,000 likes and retweets. Scroll down the replies and the attitude towards the prospective change of guard is unreservedly positive. Hand clap emojis; “Class”; we deserve more; get rid of greed in football (seriously!) – and not just from long-suffering fans, from paid observers too.
At which point it is necessary to take a step back, slap yourself a few hundred times around the head to shake the cognitive dissonance, and attempt to process how the scales of good and bad seem to work around here. Exit, the House of Karrimor. Enter, the austere and unforgiving House of Saud, a process that is somehow being hailed as a victory for “lovers”; and the end (more laughter in the dark) of the cynical commodifying of Newcastle United.
Perhaps it is time here for a tale of the tape. Mike Ashley: pig-headed retail magnate. Saudi Arabia: blood-stained inherited dictatorship. Mike Ashley: zero hours contracts in his sports shops. Saudi Arabia: beheaded 38 men in a single day. Mike Ashley: showed disrespect to Rafa Benítez. Saudi Arabia: murdered and dismembered Jamal Khashoggi. Is this useful at all?
Ashley wants to sell you a cheap nylon tracksuit. Saudi Arabia wants to sell you a soft-focus view of its oppressive regime, safe in the knowledge a mega-spending spree will provide instant distraction, thereby treating the fanbase of a great British football club as useful idiots in the soft power game.
“We’re getting our club back,” has been a refrain in the last few days. Really? Because it looks more like something more precious is being taken away.
In the meantime, yes, the Saudis are finally here. This kind of deal can always hit a late snag. But given the chairman of the Saudi Private Investment Fund, Mohammed Bin Salman, owns a painting that cost more than Newcastle, it seems likely any hitches can be smoothed over. At the end of which the PIF will own an 80% stake in the club.
You might wonder why a £300bn fund would want a football-friendly businesswoman and two local property developers to own the other 20%. Well, maybe it’s because they’re a football-friendly businesswoman and two local property developers. It certainly breaks up the row of grinning beards. And let’s be clear: image, spin and reputation management is the game here.
For now it also means this conversation must happen again, the one where a liberal left newspaper suggests that this is not a desirable entity to own a community-centred football club. In return a small, vocal swathe of that club’s online support will click into gear, warrior cells in the sports-washing immune system, and suggest that to point this out is unfair, biased and typically loaded against [insert name of club here].
To date the most common responses have included: you never mentioned Club X or indeed Club Y, who are also owned by sports-washing regimes. Another popular theme is that journalists stick up for Mike Ashley because he’s “from London” (Ashley is from Buckinghamshire. Mohamed Bin Salman, on the other hand is much more of a Londoner: he does at least own a fair bit of it.).
This time, however, it does feel as though something has changed. Perhaps, we are at a tipping point in this process. Because the whataboutery does actually have some substance. Newcastle may be the headline act, but they’re not even half the story.
If we really are to make a stand on this, to suggest that a regime where homosexuality is punishable by flogging (awkward Rainbow Laces day ahead) isn’t a desirable guest at the top table of British sport, then that process is going to require a hasty rewind.
The fact is, the Saudis aren’t coming. They’re already here, carried through the financial arms of the PIF like some irresistible super-virus particle.
The Premier League is already a willing host. Manchester United have a tie-in with the Saudi General Sports Authority, adjunct to their long standing deal with the Saudi telecoms agency. West Ham United are 10% owned by Blackstone Finance, part-funded by the Saudis. Saudi Arabia owns a stake in Uber, who sponsor Chelsea. By the same conduit the Saudis effectively sponsor 5% of Mo Salah.
It is a process to which the wider world of sport has already given in. We are all Saudis now, touched in some form by the success of the 2016 national transformation project, designed to diminish Saudi dependence on oil and create a pop-up global leisure economy.
The WWE and world boxing are on board. Even dear old moral high hats Barcelona have a commercial link with Samba, a Saudi finance company.
It’s no secret why this is happening. Throwing money into sport is a shortcut to cultural legitimacy, and certainly much easier than keeping Amnesty International happy. The question is what, if anything, those who still have the will to see sporting clubs as a special case, a protected industry, are willing to do about it.
There are some changes that could help. A rule against sovereign wealth funds owning majority stakes in football clubs would be a start. Some kind of genuine fit and proper test is conceivable, one that involves a clearly defined notion of moral probity.
And yet, you can already feel this collapsing. In a world where nobody is clean, where every hedge fund is connected to something grey, where even professional journalists struggle to see the difference between the harm done by leveraged buyouts and the moral vacuity of nation-state reputation washing, it is easy to fall into moral relativism, to lose any confidence in the ability to say this is not a desirable outcome.
At the end of which Mohamed Bin Salman is coming up the path in a black and white striped shirt. And the unregulated, entirely commercial Premier League has taken another decisive step down a path from which it will struggle to return.