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Opinion

This reaction to the Newcastle United takeover – I thought as fans we were much better than that

5 months ago
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The Corona crisis has seen me locked down in the UK, so I easily forget that I work abroad.

As a migrant, your links back home are critical in maintaining a sense of balance and identity in your life.

One of my most important links home in the last decade has been Newcastle United. It started inauspiciously, when just before I emigrated in 2010, we were relegated.

In those technologically backward days, TV coverage meant staying up till Sunday’s wee hours for the Football League show. It was a great season for a fan, a team performance we could be proud of, and few hints of the owner’s later ruthless streak.

Since then, being an NUFC fan has been a rollercoaster ride. I was delighted that a 2013 UEFA Cup quarter final fell together with the Newcastle beer festival, and I still remember clearly through a real ale haze the stunning moment of beautiful devastation when Benfica’s late goal knocked us out.

But, being honest, our annual battle against relegation has had more lows than highs. And there’s been growing disappointment in an owner content to run the club for his own benefit and interests.

So when rumours emerged of a nearing done-deal for the club, a Newcastle United takeover, I was overcome by relief, joining hundreds of thousands of Newcastle fans longing for a change.

But when the latest details emerged in January, my excitement turned to sickness. The club was going to be sold to a Saudi-led consortium funded by their national Hydrocarbon fund.

Saudi interest in our club is clear – their government are buying good publicity to hide bad deeds. There’s international pressure on their human rights abuses abroad, whether luring journalists in Turkey to torture and death, or stoking a humanitarian catastrophe in the Yemeni civil war.

Amnesty International aren’t an organisation that is known for grinding axes, and when they complain about something then you stop and listen. They made public their worries that the under-fire Saudi government was buying Newcastle United as a cynical PR exercise.

Sport’s role in burnishing tarnished images explains the 1980s sporting and cultural boycott of South Africa. Sport’s political neutrality provided a podium for that hateful regime to win friendly coverage from an essentially uncritical press pack.

The English cricketers on the 1982 rebel tour to South Africa were paid handsomely for their treachery. But the blood money they received tarnished their careers, and the results were expunged from the records.

So I’ve been shocked in the takeover’s friendly reception by Toon fans, where criticism is seen as treachery. The social media hashtag #cans, toasting the sale, has seen a rush of Saudi regime-friendly postings and positive sentiment for this rogue state.

I can understand the yearning for Ashley to leave, but I’m stunned that people don’t see that this is so much worse. Fans who took a moral stand against the always law-biding Ashley are rushing to embrace and celebrate a murderous tyranny.

I thought we were better than that, that our fans had a moral compass. Or would at least see the downside: being owned by a tarnished regime desperate for publicity makes our club vulnerable.

Attacking and damaging the club becomes an easy way for enemies to wage wars against the Saudi state by other means. They can embarrass the owners in public, draw out UEFA sanctions for politicising the game, tie the club down in a swamp of litigation, and make us unappealing to star players and managers of the #cans crowd’s dreams.

Our pain will be their gain. So think hard, fans, before you get on the #cans, whether this Newcastle United takeover is going to make us proud of our club.

This column was originally published in the Journal Newspaper, 2nd May 2020, under the Headline “Do fans really not understand this deal’s downside” and is reprinted with the permission of Reach plc

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