Prince over the water
The takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s MBS highlights the contradictory position of fans in modern football, says Paul Demarty
What a difference a year makes!
It was about that long ago that the proposed takeover of Newcastle United football club by the Saudi monarchy’s public investment fund (PIF), along with a couple of minority partners, hit a series of roadblocks. The thing ground to a halt, the Premier League looking likely to reject it, and less attentive observers might have considered it dead.
But this week the deal was waved through with barely a whimper from the footballing authorities, and a great hue and cry elsewhere; Mike Ashley, who bought the club for £135 million almost 15 years ago, has now sold it for £300 million to a consortium of PIF, the Reuben Brothers real estate firm and Amanda Staveley, a long-time go-between for Gulf investors in British deals (including Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi’s takeover of Manchester City). The other 19 Premier League clubs are incandescent - ostensibly due to the lack of consultation on the part of the league execs (who, after all, in principle work for the clubs as a collective), but at least in part, one would think, because of the likely prospect of yet another big-spending megaclub in the mix at the top of the division in years to come.
The usual run of human rights organisations are, likewise, less than impressed with the outcome, given the - let us say - eccentricities of the Saudi monarchy in general, and its de facto chief executive, crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, in particular. The litany of Saudi sins will be familiar to readers of this paper, as to all humane souls who have not been corrupted by the vast lucre on offer: the contemptible position of women, the barbaric criminal punishments, the massacres in Yemen, the literal butchery of a dissident Saudi journalist in Turkey.
Yet naturally nothing can be done - or indeed needs to be done. Those who followed this particular drama in the 2020 season will know that no such humanitarian concerns blocked the sale at that time, but rather the one part of MBS’s regional politicking that happened to reach into the pockets of the PL’s commercial partners.
In the Gulf, broadcast rights were sold years ago to BeinQ, a media network of Qatari ownership; but the Saudis had turned on Qatar, and before long a pirate operation - called, with delightful mischief, BeoutQ - mysteriously appeared. It was an open secret that this operation was a creature of the house of Saud - so open that, in the end, the deal in its then form became untenable without inviting considerable litigation.
The legal smokescreen for reopening it now is a thing of near-weightless, gossamer beauty. The number of Saudi nationals on the board of the consortium has been cut down to one, and the consortium as a whole has pinky-promised that the PIF really is independent of the Saudi state, honest. Given the implied litigiousness of the PIF on this point under the circumstances, we feel free merely to remind readers of the identity of the fund’s chairman - one Mohammad bin Salman al Saud - and invite them to draw their own conclusions about this ‘independence’, and impliedly the independence of the consortium of which it owns an 80% stake. It certainly does not bother the Premier League, which declared that it “has now received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United”.1
Compared to the moral anxiety of the wider football world, and the bland legalese of the premiership, the fan response on Tyneside seems overwhelmingly jubilant. Street parties followed the conclusion of the deal - admittedly as much a matter of the identity of the old owner as the new. Mike Ashley, the budget sportswear tycoon, whose ill-starred reign has seen Newcastle relegated twice from the premiership, chronic underinvestment and what sometimes appeared to be calculated insults to the club’s famously fanatical supporters, will not be missed, and nor should he be. Yet there is an upside quite independent of that: the possibilities unlocked by the essentially bottomless wealth of the new owners.
As I write, manager Steve Bruce - an old-fashioned English football coach best known for his time playing for Manchester United at the beginning of their great period of dominance under Alex Ferguson, but a rather sad figure in the St James’s Park dugout - is still in post. But the old heave-ho is expected not before long, and the mercurial but talented Italian, Antonio Conte, is the bookies’ favourite to replace him. No doubt an impressive signing is to be expected in the January window; and, this year or next, the escape from Newcastle’s perpetual lower-mid-table doldrums - and after that, who knows?
The contortions that official fan organisations have had to undergo to justify this are hardly dignified, but none less so than United With Pride, the LGBT+ supporters club. Its statement noted that Saudi Arabia “as a country is one of the least tolerant for LGBTQ+ and gender rights anywhere in the world”; but it is not all bad: “The engagement and investment in international business and sport under the ‘Vision 30’ programme could be viewed as an opportunity for decision makers in Saudi Arabia to witness how other cultures treat their minority groups.”2
The phrase “could be” is doing a lot of work here … But frankly we do not do the UWP people the disservice of supposing them stupid enough to believe this rubbish (and, if they do, we’ve got the Tyne Bridge to sell them). As if a showpiece bit of sportswashing will succeed in putting the camel’s nose of ‘human rights’ under the tent of terroristic autocracy any more than the last hundred rotten deals between western firms and the House of Saud! Whatever it takes for you to enjoy the happy days to come, we suppose.
If the Newcastle fans do not cover themselves in glory here, we should not single them out. They are, after all, not the first club, in England or elsewhere, mobilised to launder dubious reputations in this way; in no comparable case has there been a serious fan revolt. There is, of course, Manchester City, plaything of the Abu Dhabi elite, and Chelsea, the toy of oligarch Roman Abramovich, and Paris Saint-Germain, that of the Qataris, who have now succeeded in prising this century’s greatest player, Lionel Messi, from Barcelona (the latter club being in complete disarray, admittedly).
The Newcastle fans have no meaningful input in the ownership of their club - a lesson rammed home to them at unnecessary length during the Ashley years. It is not they who turned elite British clubs into exorbitantly priced baubles for kleptocrats and princelings (and that is the best case - dissatisfaction is often higher at those clubs run by more ‘conventional’ capitalists seeking rent on their global brands). There is an important difference between these owners, who spend money to make money, and those after the model of MBS or the Emiratis in charge at Man City, who spend money to make friends. The PIF does make more typical investments in businesses that actually make money, like Disney, or might seem promising for the future if you remove enough of your brain, like Uber; but even those have a ‘soft power’ edge. Throwing good money after bad into Uber dovetails very nicely with MBS’s ‘modernisation’ agenda that has United with Pride so dewy-eyed, and it is a fine thing when the largest cultural monopoly has to consider the favours it owes you, as it extrudes another few hundred hours of vacuous pap into the world’s cinemas and living rooms.
Greed and control
Socialist Worker has deemed the Newcastle takeover beneath its notice, but has often criticised football for being fuelled by greed - which is, of course, true to an extent, but ironically misses the commanding heights of the game’s corruption. When the game is for sale to the highest bidder, one finds that the very highest bidders are closer to feudal aristocrats than capitalists, whose funds are after all largely under bureaucratic management nowadays. The paradox of football under capitalism is that it is not terribly profitable if you really want to compete at the highest levels, since what you are competing for is the very best players, whose transfer fees and - nowadays, especially - wages grow vastly out of proportion to the amount of money actually available in revenue.
For this reason, UEFA - the European football association - even passed rules forcing clubs to run at a profit (though they have proven devilishly difficult to enforce in the face of creative accounting), in order to narrow the advantage enjoyed by the oligarchs, Gulf regimes and the like. The abortive European Super League was likely in part an attempt to get this situation under control, though on the most dismal of terms; notably unenthusiastic were the quasi-feudal owners, compared to the more ‘capitalistic’ ones.
It is best to think of the football problem as a question of control. Football is a mass-cultural phenomenon, which includes, of course, the competitive matches themselves, and by extension the institutional hierarchy - the visible church, as it were, of the sport. It also includes a multi-generational fan culture deeper than all the money-printing Disney franchises added up: Shakespearean rivalries, chanted obscenities, fanzines, pop records … Not all of this stuff is, in the cosmic sense, good (least of all the pop records); but it is out of the grasp of the authorities. So there is a contradiction, which plays out in usually marginal and haphazard ways, but sometimes in rather more dramatic episodes (as in the fan revolt against the ESL).
Alienation from the control of clubs is itself a distorting influence on fan culture. Sport is at its least interesting when spectators are just spectators; but, as we noted, Newcastle fans, like those of almost all other clubs in the upper tiers of English football, are increasingly reduced to that status, and have ended up playing something like the role of medieval peasants, whose dream of freedom is projected onto a noble prince from across the water returning to overthrow the tyrannical king.
This need not be the case - those who care for the game’s honour and integrity can send the princes and the private equity ghouls alike packing. But they plainly cannot do so as fans of this team or that, fixing things club by club, when the whole structure, from FIFA down, is systematically corrupt. Nothing less than revolution is needed to end the exploitation of the game by capitalist firms, and its subornment by state regimes and oligarchs, and return clubs to the control and stewardship of their fans.