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French NUFC fan perspective on Newcastle United takeover – Feels like an ‘immense release’

5 months ago
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I would like to share this article that I wrote about the Newcastle United takeover.

For a brief introduction, I’m French and I have been a Newcastle fan my entire life.

Knowing the takeover is closer than ever to be happening, felt to me like an immense release.

However, like many of our fans, I have been given moral lessons and seen my ethics questioned by what seems to be an entirely new fan club of human rights.

I’ve decided to write this article because I first wanted to defend myself in front of this fashionable public outcry, but also because I wanted to analyse this situation under a historic and economic length.

I am a postgraduate from LSE (London School of Economics) in International Political Economy, and questions around investment, capital flows, and model of club ownership have always been a subject of interest to me. I also grew up in France, following a league which runs under different rules and regulations than the Premier League.

This particular background led me to write this article, where I intend to shed light on the hypocrisy of people’s reactions towards Newcastle fans today.

I firstly analyse the history of investment and capital flows in football in order to set the picture. Then I come back to the 13 years of dreadful ownership under Ashley, questioning why people expect us to protest, when after 13 years of denouncing a man – who has been breaching human rights and exploiting workers on our own soil – we never have been listened to, even once.

Lastly, I analyse the economy of the Premier League and its financial competitiveness, making it more and more challenging to break the mid-table ceiling sustainably. A system which to me has made the idea of having fan ownership a hopeless dream.

The point I intend to make is that if we all know football is a lot about money, this doesn’t mean it has to be left that way. I’ve always been following many leagues and the Bundesliga or some clubs in Spain are examples that there are many different ways football can be managed. There are big changes that could be made in the Premier League but it is not the role of Newcastle fans to push for it. It’s the role of everyone, in football and elsewhere and this shouldn’t be brought up only when ones sees a potential new competitor along the line.

I’ve written this article with my heart, unfortunately I am not a native speaker, so I apologise for the possibly broken English. I hope you will still find this of interest.

Newcastle United Takeover: The hypocrisy behind the critics on Newcastle fans

Football, Premier League, and moral quandary

As everyone has heard, Newcastle United are closer than ever to finally concluding their takeover. Mike Ashley is on the verge of selling the club to the Saudi sovereign wealth fund (PIF) for an approximate amount of £300 million, with Yasir Al-Rumayyan as head figure. This has raised important concerns from Amnesty International and many others about human rights abuses occurring in Saudi Arabia.

Many raised fears about how the takeover could give cultural legitimacy to an authoritarian regime, currently involved in a violent war with Yemen and known for practice of mass repression . With this, many have started to blame our fans for being excited about the takeover and for not taking any direct action. This has been very apparent on social media (which I’ll stress, isn’t a very particularly good representation of people’s opinion), and several people have come to me asking me why I wasn’t being vocal about this and why I liked Twitter jokes with Saudi flags.

I decided to write this article as an answer to this ‘trial on court of public opinion’ that Newcastle fans are being put under . My reply will first set the broader picture – that many seem to overlook – by talking about the history of investments and capital flows in football. I will then explore the Newcastle situation and emphasise the hypocrisy of the critics that are being made, reframing the debate within the Premier League and the models of club ownerships.

Football: An economic model running high on cash

As a Newcastle fan, my first line of defence when people started to say that my club (and me with it) had sold its soul to the devil, has been to point out other Premier League teams. Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich, respectively owning Manchester City and Chelsea, are far from being human rights role models and their money definitely did not flower from benevolent businesses.

However, by following this line of argument, I surprised myself doing what I always denounce football fans of doing every time their feel under attack, a classic case of whataboutism : trying to discredit someone else’s opinion by pointing out to the dirt on their side and charging them of hypocrisy. While grabbing the torch to shine it on something else is a great strategy to discharge oneself from guilt, this brings absolutely nothing to the debate except maybe more disagreement.

Hence, I questioned myself on why this came up as my first answer. If this whataboutery is a worthless argument, it still shined light on one undeniable point: Football is about money, and asking where the money comes from arrives second when striking a deal. And contrarily to what some argue, this isn’t a new phenomenon at all and isn’t particular to the UK.

Football has long lastingly been closely involved with shady deals, such as drugs cartels in Latin America or oligarchs in Eastern Europe. Countless examples can be made of contentious sponsorship deals. To name a few: Gazprom sponsoring FC Schalke 04, Malaga FC and PSG owned by Qatari investors, etc. What has changed on a more recent scale is the amount of money we’re talking about. But more than being a change in football, this is a change in the global economy where liberalism has freed accumulation of money and religiously praised external investments as a magical answer to everything.

Football liberalisation occurred slightly later than it did in the rest of the global economy, with an important increase in capital flows booming in the 90s. A key date was the enactment of the Bosman Ruling in 1995, which freed the movement of labour, hugely impacting the transfers of footballers within the European Union and enacting the start of an exponential and unregulated increase of transfer prices.

The Spanish league dived headfirst into the money trap: Throughout the 1990s, all the clubs not considered to be solvent by the government were forced to be sold to investors (traded Over the Counter). Only 3 clubs were allowed to keep their status and remain still today owned by their members: Barcelona FC, Real Madrid, and Athletic Bilbao.

This equally happened in Italy. If some industries (other than football) have started to be more careful after uncovering downsides from foreign investors (e.g. loss of control and insecurities around short-lived investments), football seems to have stayed deeply stuck in the 80-90s frenetic euphoria where the green bill is king. And while Spanish and Italian clubs were dominating throughout the 1990s, the Premier League quickly came about, in the 2000s, securing its domination until today.

And oh boy, money has been flooding in the Premier League. We all remember the controversial takeover of Manchester United which after being listed on the New York Stock Exchange got acquired by Malcolm Glazer between 2003 and 2005 for almost £800million. And this was not of the taste of many fans. Several fan-owned clubs were created, such as the FC United of Manchester , which today competes in the Northern Premier League Premier Division. Football has become addicted to money, in the UK and elsewhere.

Just recently, BeIN Sport, English football’s biggest overseas broadcast channel has urged to block the Newcastle takeover. They warned about the Saudi Arabia’s involvement in pirate broadcast, saying that the “future economic model of football is at stake” . A bit ironic isn’t it, when we know the amount of money TV rights represents, and the price it can cost people if they want to legally watch football at home (which, in my opinion, in the main reason behind the popularity of illegal streaming). Allowing non scrupulous club ownership is only one puzzle piece, part of a large system high on cash and capital flows.

A public outcry lying between unawareness and unashamed hypocrisy

This freedom of investment situation has put many football fans in an awkward position, where they end up having to weigh their boundless love for their club with some moral consciousness that everyone else seem to be a new champion of.

“How can you be happy about your club being owned by a country where women have no right” I’ve heard, or “you’re supporting a regime that behead people for being gay” I’ve read. Most times coming from people that I never before seen vocal about the million of other cases of human rights abuses around the world unrelated to football, and that I doubt would move a finger if they were aware of a gender-pay gap in the company they work for. But let’s not fall in the trap of bigotry and try to reflect on fans positions when it comes to club ownerships.

lee charnley and mike ashley

Newcastle has been under 13 years of dreadful ownership from Mike Ashley. Blatant selfish business owner, Ashley has used our club for his own interest and never cared one bit about how his actions would impact the club or the fans, as long as it brought him money. The only thing he needed was keeping Newcastle in the Premier League. His recent positioning about Covid-19 asking the government to keep his Sports Direct shops opened, shows that Ashley simply cares more about money than the health of human being. Oh, he apologised publicly you say? Well, a minute after doing so, his stores were told to raise their prices on a range of home exercised products .

As well put by Oliver Holt , “Ashley tried to impose his cynicism and his opportunism on a club and a culture than runs on loyalty and passion”. Thirteen years have felt like a lifetime for our fans, trapped in a cage with Ashley waving the keys in front of our nose and laughing at us.

We’ll always remember this quote from Ashley, which is a perfect expression of his malign personality: “I am wedded to Newcastle like Sports Direct. They’ve got me and I’ve got them.” A forced wedding that no fans agreed on, that’s for sure.

Rumours about the club sold to new owners have been going on and on since the very beginning of Ashley’s ownership, as early as 2009. Countless times we naively went to buy cans to cheer about what we believed was hope of new winds of changefor the club. Countless times we’ve been disappointed (but still drank the cans, I mean we don’t want them to go to waste). But today it is more real than ever. Ashley’s reign is about to end and Newcastle fans can finally dream of a better future for their team.

Football for the people of Newcastle is much more than a simple football game they watch every Saturday. Newcastle is a one-club city with St James’ slap bang in the middle of the city. Football for Newcastle provides escapism like nothing else does. It’s what people talk about with their work colleague to forget that it’s Monday and they’re trapped in a low-paying, dead end job (which Newcastle has more than its fair share of). It’s what they chat about after having a few pints at the pub and reminisce about that record breaking Shearer goal at the Gallowgate end in 2006, how we nearly won the league in 1996, or that famous 3-2 win over Barcelona. Football in the North East is deeply rooted with people’s life, and when you see the club doing poorly on the league, it’s the whole city that feels on a bad hangover.

So when time for ownership change comes, after 13 years of club asset stripping and relegations, one can expect our fans to cheer. But our moment of relief got spoiled when the entire PL started to blame us, the fans, for endorsing an immoral deal.

What bothers me here, is that people are expecting fans to protest, when we’ve spent 13 years relentlessly protesting against an owner blatantly breaching human rights, without anyone listening. Remember this Covid-19 example about Sport Direct? Well hold on, I’ve got something for you and for those who might have suddenly forgotten.

In 2016, a Sports Direct employee gave birth in a toilet because she was afraid of disciplinary action if she were to miss her shift . The story came to light after a union report to MPs denounced the inhuman conditions Sports Direct workers were working under. Steve Turner described staff working conditions as “a business mode with exploitation at the very heart of it”. The union report said there had been 110 ambulance callouts to the warehouse: 38 due to workers complaining about chest pains, and 5 related to birth or miscarriage. At the time, the warehouse had 79% of its employees under zero hours contracts, while others were on short term contracts of only 336 hours a year, leaving them effectively on zero hours by the end of February each year.

Combined to this, the company was implementing a system where workers could receive six ‘strikes’ before they could be fired. Such strikes could be release due to excessive chatting, days off work, or ‘long toilet breaks’…. Mike Ashley publicly admitted workers had been paid less that the legal minimum wage , before justifying himself by saying that Sports Direct had a “hard-working culture” and was “victim of its own success”. He even declared, I quote, “I’m not Father Christmas, I’m not saying I’ll make the world wonderful”.

Did Newcastle fans protest about this? Yes they did. But no matter what they would do, no matter how loud they would speak, their voice was never heard (or people decided that they were deluded or demanding too much).  The disillusion was such that a large strand of the fans even stopped going to the stadium for home games. And today, suddenly, they are blamed for doing nothing. They have spent 13 years denouncing Mike Ashley, someone committing human rights offences on our own soil. Did that simply not count because he’s white and British? Can we really blame Newcastle for not trying here?

But this isn’t even my main question here. What I really wonder, is it really down to the fans to fight against football entanglement with dirty money? Is it Newcastle fans role to denounce a deal that they know they’ll have no power over? Or are we just missing the point here?

Instead of blaming without thinking, should we, maybe, think of potential large scope change?

The Premier League has left the door open to massive investment and if you want to be competitive, you will need money. One can say that gameplay, strategy and tactics can also bring you to the top, but let’s not hide ourselves in fairytales: the money will always help. Would Guardiola have had the same success story without Manchester’s owner injecting millions? If one can’t answer for sure, it would quite surely have been a different story.

The Premier League is the richest league in the world, and I won’t lie, it’s also the best league to watch. As much as I’ll defend my country’s football, Ligue 1 is miles away from the spectacle we can see in PL (but to be honest, under this whole COVID-19 situation I’d give anything to watch a boring draw between Toulouse and Amiens right now).

But the massive capital influx has had important impacts on the overall competitiveness of the league, with a perceivable dichotomy between the top 6 and the rest. This has put intense pressure on managers lacking financial backing, making it highly challenging to break the mid-table ceiling sustainably. Clubs are craving money, and with the PL welcoming blindly any investors, it’s the entire league that becomes flooded with blood money.

The PL has reached such a point that fan ownership appears to be a hopeless dream. There are good examples in Europe of clubs being owned by members. But being sustainable under fan ownership is far from being easy: You need a sound and healthy management such as Athletic Bilbao or Bayern Munich, or you need a very large fan base enabling you to generate revenue and being self-sustainable, like FCB or Real Madrid. Those clubs are proof that they are alternative to private ownership (and dirty money flying around). But I doubt they would have the same success within the Premier League, where competitiveness is severely draining ambitious clubs without lavish owners out of their money.

Ultimately, I don’t see how this process will stop, without a change from the top. It’s hard to imagine a club pushing against external investment where it’s their only path towards success. If it’s hardly imaginable (as of now) to hope for a 50+1 rule as it is implemented in Bundesliga, I believe there are measures that can be taken to regulate investments and buyouts, being it term of amounts but also ethics and values.

Bundesliga Ball PodiumAnd this can be broadened even further than football. If we don’t want to see the PIF involved in our beloved football, we should also investigate into ESI Media (The Independent) being backed by Saudi Arabian investors with potential links to the state . There are big changes that need to be made, and it is not the role of Newcastle fans to push for it, but the role of everyone, and this shouldn’t be brought up only when ones sees a potential new competitor along the line.

Let’s not get my point wrong, I am not saying our fans should be embracing their new owners with love and flowers. I am simply saying that we are in a position or moral quandary that everyone would rather avoid if they had a choice. Ask any Newcastle fan if they’d rather have new owners that gives 10% of their revenue to charity and got successful from saving pandas, I can very comfortably assume 100% of them will answer yes. But asking them to fight back against the new owner is like asking a working class housewife with 3 kids to buy organic product and stop driving her car while we still buy EasyJet flights to go on a weekend to Paris.

As an Olympique Lyonnais fan, I’ve lived my entire life seeing my home club owned by a local owner, and new prospects of having Tony Parker (who played in our local basketball team in his youth) taking over our club are enchanting news . But with PSG being backed up financially by the Qatar Sports Investment, I’m more and more losing hope of ever winning the league again. This is the sad reality of football. But if this is the reality, it doesn’t have to be fixed. Changes can always be made, the only question is how. While I don’t hold the answer to this question, I believe raising it as a debate and hearing people’s opinion over it, is what will bring this moral consciousness everyone seems to be asking from Newcastle.

Despite everything, I am still thrilled by the prospect of seeing Newcastle being a club that can finally step up to its ambition and real value.

I’ve fallen in love with the club since the first time I’ve seen them play, and I am excited to see what the future might bring us (Mbappé, St-Max, Mané as our forwards, that’s the future I picture).

I would not go along with fans claiming “we’ve got our club back”, as this is the opposite of the case, but I would say we have got our hopes back, even if the sky is not as blue as we would have dreamt it to be.

Knowing more about the structure of the ownership and stakeholders will also bring new scope to the debate, and I would be more than happy to talk more about this with anyone that is interested in sharing views and ideas.

Thank you for reading!

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