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Opinion

This Newcastle United fan is preparing for a dance with the devil

5 months ago
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I am a Newcastle United fan; I have been all my thirty-two years.

For the vast majority of that time, my club has been unsuccessful on the pitch.

For the past thirteen years (over one third of my lifetime), this major part of my identity has been owned by Mike Ashley, a man wholly disinterested in football, whose only goal has been to keep the club in suspended animation and who has spat in the eye of fans at every turn.

Now it seems, the club is set to be free of Ashley: the most hated owner in Premier League football has finally agreed to sell the club. This should be a time for rejoicing, but for many fans, the identity of the new owners is cause for major concern.

There are enough articles right now on the fact (and it is a fact) that the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) is buying Newcastle United as an exercise in sportswashing. The Saudi regime is probably the most repressive in the world outside of North Korea. Its political ideology is repugnant, with public beheadings and the wholesale oppression of women, homosexuals and dissidents of all kinds.

It is also accused of being a rogue state that sponsors terrorism. That’s not me saying that, it’s the US Treasury Department, in documents released by Wikileaks and published in the New York Times. Saudi Arabia is said to be the world’s largest source of funds and promoter of Salafist jihadism, which forms the ideological basis of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS/Islamic State and others. It is responsible for an enforced famine – which is a war crime – in Yemen.

Despite all this, Saudi Arabia remains an ally of The UK, USA and other Western states, and a key trading partner. The UK sells guns and fighter jets to the Saudis, in full knowledge of how they will be used. Why? Because of the old adage: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

To over-simplify a complex situation, Saudi Arabia acts as a counterweight to the other major power in the Middle East, Iran. As long as the Iranians retain nuclear ambitions, Western governments will turn a blind eye to Saudi crimes, despite its brand of Islamism being the inspiration for pretty much every jihadi terror group in the world today.

I am not pointing any of this out as an attempt to argue that “the government thinks it’s fine, so it must be fine.” It is not fine, it is a scandal. My question is this: If the UK government is happy to accept money from Saudi Arabia for bombs that are then used to destroy Yemeni villages, why would anyone expect Mike Ashley, a man who has proven his amorality, to refuse it?

Ashley’s guiding principle has long been the pursuit of profit regardless of the consequences. He has paid his employees below minimum wage and forced them into “Dickensian” working conditions. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, he was forced into a U-turn after initially flouting the lockdown to keep his Sports Direct stores open. This is not a man who was ever likely to turn down £300 million on moral grounds once he had decided to sell an asset.

I would then ask why anyone would expect the hyper-capitalist Premier League, a competition founded to maximise the profits of its clubs, to take a stand against a Saudi takeover? The Premier League’s ‘Owners and Directors Test’ (formally known as the ‘Fit and Proper Persons Test’) includes no morality clause. It is merely a financial assessment, which the Saudi PIF will pass with flying colours.

UK politicians, English football and sport in general has long since sold its soul to the Saudis. If the answer to both of my questions is that you “would hope, but would not expect,” then where does that leave Newcastle United fans?

Many have already greeted the incoming Saudi owners rapturously. A quick peruse of social media will find Newcastle fans with Saudi flags in their Twitter handles, profile pictures changed to Mohammad Bin Salman and mocked-up black-and-white thawbs.

The assumption is that Newcastle will become a member of the super-rich overnight, able to compete with the giants of the game both domestically and (eventually) in Europe. If that’s the case, many will welcome investors, regardless of their background.

That social media adulation is part of the attraction for the Saudis. There is a certain strain of football fan that will defend the actions of their club off the pitch, even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with football, and attack its perceived ‘enemies’. One only has to look at the way Liverpool fans defended Luis Suarez after he racially abused Patrice Evra, or Sheffield United fans supported their club’s attempts to sign then-convicted rapist Ched Evans, and attacked Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill for her discomfort with her club’s decision.

In buying Newcastle, the Saudis are also buying an army of black-and-white keyboard warriors. Those that would act in this way are useful idiots, helping to massage the image of a murderous regime. Are all fans like this? Absolutely not. Those that behave this way will be nowhere near a majority of fans, whether at Newcastle or any other club. But social media has given these people a platform and made them more vocal and prominent than they would otherwise have been.

The saddest thing is, it is totally unnecessary. Pointing out the crimes of the Saudi regime is not an attack on Newcastle fans or the club itself, and there is no reason to feel attacked by someone stating them. I am a Newcastle fan, and at no point in this article have I criticised any Newcastle player, manager, member of non-playing staff or fan who simply wants to enjoy watching and supporting the team. I fall into the latter category myself.

Fan will remain fans, and anyone who would suggest that Newcastle fans should simply stop supporting their club – an institution that is a full forty years older than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself – betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the concept of fandom and the cultural significance of football to a city like Newcastle and its people. Such assertions would be unrealistic, hugely unfair and more than a little patronising.

Newcastle fans should also not be expected to reign in their celebrations of any sporting success that comes, or submit to bouts of public handwringing or self-flagellation whenever a new signing is made. The money is dirty, of that there can be no question. But, as human rights researcher Nick McGeehan pointed out on the True Faith podcast, football fans are not the people who should be expected to combat global political issues such as this, if our political leaders won’t.

Football is an inelastic product, which does not suffer the same ‘substitution threat’ (the concept of its ‘customers’ – in this case fans – leaving to devote their attentions to a rival) as other industries. A football fan’s club is part of their identity, something which may have been passed down through the generations, that they may build their entire lifestyle around.

Such ties are not easily severed, and that in itself is part of the attraction for the Saudis: they know that the majority of Newcastle fans have little option but to continue supporting the club despite the crimes of its owners. They have been put in this position with no say as to the outcome.

If our leaders are happy to welcome the Saudis, our ex-owner is happy to take their money and our sport is happy to wave through the sale of our club, what can we do? Well, actually, one or two things.

First, enough with the Saudi emojis on Twitter. Don’t go flying Saudi flags in the stadium and please don’t start wearing checked tea towels on your head with your black-and-white shirt. That would be offensive on multiple levels. There is absolutely no need to become a fan of Saudi Arabia as well as a fan of Newcastle United.

On a practical level, Newcastle fans can do things to ensure our voices are heard. Initiatives such as rainbow laces day should be raucously supported in the stands. Fans can set up collection buckets for charities such as Amnesty, Reporters Without Borders or Human Rights Watch outside the ground on matchdays.

Other fans, notably at Bayern Munich, have protested Gulf State investment in their clubs. It would be nice to see one or two home-brew banners at St James’ Park next season, in support of women’s rights, freedom of speech or of the press. Or perhaps a stand-size surfer of murdered journalist Jamaal Khashoggi?

Such actions, while small, would show that although Newcastle fans can and will continue to support their team, to do so is categorically not an endorsement of the Saudi regime. We like to sing that “we are the loudest football supporters the world has ever had.” Well, now is the time to make ourselves heard.

None of this would be particularly taxing for us Geordies: our club has been a sportswashing enterprise for the past 13 years. What has Mike Ashley’s ownership of Newcastle United been, if not an attempt to market his company around the world using St James’ Park as a billboard?

Ashley has committed crimes, if not against humanity, then against human decency. The Saudis’ use of our club will be nothing new, just on a far grander scale and as a distraction for far greater crimes. The past 13 years have proven that Newcastle fans are capable of separating the team from its owners; let’s continue to do so.

Howay the lads!

(Graeme also has his own website which you can visit here. or you follow him on twitter @graeme_hall)

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