Saudi Arabia, Newcastle and football’s worship of money

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The sentence on the banner made its first appearance nearly seven years ago, at what turned out to be just the halfway point of Ashley’s tenure. It was a reference to that dispiriting habit his club had developed of spurning England’s two domestic cups — the two trophies the club had even the slimmest chance of winning — so much that, often, the team looked as if it was trying to get knocked out early on purpose.

It had been prepared for precisely one of those occasions. Newcastle was away at Leicester in the FA Cup in January 2015. Or a team playing as Newcastle was, anyway: As ever in the cups, Newcastle had sent out a weakened side, a selection of reserves and fringe players and supporting acts. The headliners had been held back in order to attend to the real business of finishing 15th in the Premier League.

Newcastle, as the fans who had traveled to watch their team would have expected, duly lost. It was the very predictability that they were protesting, during the game, when they unfurled the banner.

“We do not demand a team that wins,” it read, “we demand a club that tries.”

The slogan has become a familiar one, as pithy and compelling a summation of everything that Newcastle had been reduced to under Ashley. The banner itself has made occasional appearances over the years, too, as protests have flashed and mutiny has simmered.

It was back again, on Thursday evening, for what may prove to be its last hurrah. The circumstances, this time, were a little different: It was carried around not as a rallying cry for an uprising, but as a standard of a battle that had been won. Ashley, at last, was gone, and thousands of Newcastle fans had made their way to St James’s Park, their shining castle on the hill, to celebrate.

Few, if any, of their fellow fans would begrudge them that. Something of a myth has been allowed to take hold, over the last few years, about Newcastle’s fans. They have developed a reputation for being equal parts demanding and delusional, for believing their club uniquely deserving of a restoration to a place of prominence in English soccer’s firmament that it never, really, occupied in the first place.

The reality is almost exactly the opposite. All Newcastle’s fans have ever really asked for is a team that is mildly entertaining to watch, and a bit of effort from those charged with running the club. The banner made that perfectly clear. Ashley’s affront was not failing to win; it was robbing them of the hope that they might.

That represents the ultimate betrayal of ownership to all fans, and though their estimations of their own suffering have long been hugely overstated — Newcastle’s ordeal of permanent irrelevance in the Premier League is not quite of the same order as that of Bury, a club that no longer exists, or that of the countless Football League teams to have brushed liquidation in recent years — there has been an abundance of sympathy to their plight. Only at Sunderland, Newcastle’s neighbor and bitter rival, might anyone regret the departure of Ashley, and the end of Newcastle’s nightmare.

But that was not the only thing the crowd had gathered to celebrate Thursday. There was glee, too, at the start of what appears to be a dream. It is not just that Newcastle has been freed from Ashley, it is that it has been liberated by the sort of owner who seems to promise a club that tries and a team that wins.

Newcastle is now the richest club in soccer, backed by the unimaginable wealth of the Public Investment Fund, the investment vehicle of Saudi Arabia but absolutely not — and apologies if this makes no sense — in any way linked to the Saudi state, even though Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s crown prince and de facto ruler, is the chairman of the PIF, and even though it describes itself as a “sovereign” wealth fund, which rather gives away where its money comes from.

It was that distinction that persuaded the Premier League to wave the deal through. When it held up the Saudi-led takeover last year, the league had not, it turned out, been worried that Saudi Arabia was pirating its content through a rogue television broadcaster, or that it had banned BeIN Sports, one of league’s key network partners, from operating in its territory, or even about the kingdom’s jailing of women’s rights activists or the persecution of dissidents or the chemical castration of gay people or the brutal, unrelenting war in Yemen or the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

No, the Premier League just needed to be reassured that the Mohammed bin Salman who runs Saudi Arabia would not interfere with the decisions of the Mohammed bin Salman who runs Saudi Arabia’s sovereign investment fund.

Once the league had those promises, the PIF was free to acquire 80% of one of the league’s member clubs and to begin to think about how to take on Manchester City, a club definitely not owned by Abu Dhabi, in the Premier League and Paris St-Germain, a club totally separate from the Qatari state, in the Champions League.

And a handful of Newcastle fans were free to gather outside St. James’s Park in thobes and headdresses, waving the Saudi flag, inscribed with the shahada, while singing that their club had, at last, been returned to them.

This, of course, is the point of the whole thing. Saudi Arabia, and its crown prince in particular, is obsessed with its image. It is why it runs troll farms in Riyadh dedicated to swarming anyone who dares to criticize the regime online. It is why it does not tolerate dissent. It is why Khashoggi was killed and dismembered, according to United States intelligence, by a hit squad acting on the orders of the crown prince, the man who runs the country and the one who is the chairman of the fund that now owns a Premier League soccer team.

There are plenty of Newcastle fans who are uneasy about that connection, about the fact that it is now possible to write a sentence in which the murder of a journalist and Newcastle United both feature.

But there are plenty more — a supporters’ trust survey last year found that almost 97% were in favor of the Saudi takeover — who are willing to turn a blind eye to that ethical dilemma, to assert that their new owner is no worse than Manchester City’s, or to point out that Liverpool is sponsored by a bank that has been accused of laundering the profits of drug cartels, or to suggest that since Britain is happy to sell arms to the Saudis, it might as well sell its soccer teams, to claim that when everything is rotten there is nothing to do but succumb to putrefaction.

And there are others still — the ones in the thobes, the ones with the Saudi flag in their social media avatars, the ones who have issued scrawls of abuse to Khashoggi’s widow for daring to challenge the morality of the takeover — who are perfectly happy to embrace it, to do precisely what the Saudis want them to do.

The PIF has not bought Newcastle because it loves soccer, or England’s northeast, or the beach at Tynemouth or the leafy streets of Gosforth or the grand Georgian facades of Gray Street.

It has bought Newcastle to diversify its economy, to enmesh strategic allegiances in sport and culture, to rehabilitate its image, to make people think of Saudi Arabia and soccer before they think of Saudi Arabia and starving children in Yemen. The fact that it gets a free vanguard of vitriolic advocates on social media — just as Abu Dhabi has managed at Manchester City — is a bonus.

Newcastle United, and those fans, are being used, just as City is being used and just as PSG is being used and Chelsea is being used, just as soccer as a whole is being used and, in the process, corrupted. And yes, those fans are complicit in it. But they are not the only ones to blame.

So, too, are the authorities that have allowed this to happen, time and time again: the Premier League, with the “ownership neutral” stance that it wears with such pride, and the Football Association and UEFA and FIFA and all the rest of them, the bodies that are supposed to protect and cherish the sport but have instead sold it off to the highest bidder.

And so, too, are the rest of us: the journalists and the commentators and the observers and the fans, everyone who has reveled in the conspicuous consumption of transfer deadline day, anyone who has ever taken the Deloitte Money League as a sign of the sport’s health, rather than a damning indictment of its venality, its naked, unashamed worship of money.

A year or so after Newcastle’s fans unfurled that banner, Everton was playing away at Aston Villa. Their club had just been taken over, too, this time by Farhad Moshiri, a British Iranian businessman with a personal fortune of impossible vastness. They, too, could not believe their luck. “We’re rich,” they sang that night, over and over again, a profanity wedged between those two words.

There is a warning in there, of course — five years later, Everton is roughly where it used to be in the Premier League table, but about $500 million in transfer fees worse off — but the story does not require a particularly deep reading. For 30 years, the Premier League has lionized wealth — as a means to an end, and now, after a while, as an end in itself.

The natural, logical, unavoidable conclusion of that culture is Newcastle fans gathering outside St James’s Park in traditional Saudi dress. The only way for clubs to compete, the only way for owners to restore hope in its purest form, is money. And it is Saudi Arabia that has the most money.

It is money that has distorted soccer to such an extent that all dreams but one are now dead. There is no hope of a team’s breaking through thanks to a particularly gifted crop of youngsters who emerge from its academy. There is precious little belief that an inspirational manager, with a keen eye for talent, will be enough to challenge the petroclubs for league titles and European trophies.

The only thing that can do that, the only dream that survives, is that your club will, somehow, one day wake up with more money than everyone else. That, in effect, is what happened to Newcastle on Thursday: the sudden, jolting realization that its wildest fantasy had come true; not just that its purgatory was over, but that its paradise had arrived.

It is easy to point at those fans and say that they are the problem — that it is their willingness to pay any price for success that means that yet another club that prides itself as a community institution is now in the hands of an owner who is willing to use it for selfish ends; that they are apparently ready to service the needs of the murderous regime that is seeking to deploy soccer to launder its image.

But they are not the problem; they are the consequence of the problem. They are the end point of an era and a culture obsessed with acquisition, that believes ambition can be measured only in millions of dollars, that cherishes those who spend and castigates those who do not, that has welcomed money, whatever its provenance, as an objective good, and never questioned, not once, what that money might want to do, what its purpose might be.

This is the answer. This is where that path leads — to a place where the only hope that fans have is money, where dreams are built on money, and where there is no such thing as a price too high to pay.

© 2021 The New York Times Company



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