Soccer’s worship of money

January 2015: Newcastle United were away to Leicester City in the FA Cup. As always in the cup, Newcastle sent out a reserve team, full of fringe players, the headliners held back to attend to the real business of finishing 15th in the league. Newcastle, as their fans who travelled 200 miles to watch their team would’ve expected, duly lost. It wasn’t the result, but the predictability of it that they were protesting.

“We do not demand a team that wins,” one banner read, “We demand a club that tries.” The one simple sentence captured it all: The pain and resentment, angst and fury, of the years spent under Mike Ashley’s bleak ownership of their club. Time in which the British billionaire seemed to take pleasure in draining his own fans of hope. The slogan has since become familiar, while the banner itself made another appearance last week. This time, it wasn’t a rallying cry for an uprising; it was the story of a battle won.

Ashley, at last, was gone. Suddenly, Newcastle had gone from being irrelevant under-achievers to the richest club in soccer, backed by the unimaginable wealth of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the investment vehicle of Saudi Arabia, of which Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s crown prince and de facto ruler, is the chairman. Three sets of fans For fans, the switch was enough to gather outside the club’s famous St James’s Park stadium in thobes and he addresses and wave the Saudi flag while singing that their club had at least been returned to them.

There are also many fans who are uneasy about that connection, about the kingdom’s track record on women’s and gay people’s rights, its per se cut ion of dissidents, the brutal, unrelenting war in Yemen, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But there are many more — as per a survey last year, 97 per cent fans were in favour of the Saudi takeover — who were willing to turn a blind eye to this ethical dilemma.

These fans argue their new owner is no worse than Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi owners, or how Liverpool FC is sponsored by a bank that’s been accused of laundering profits of drug cartels. They also argue that if Britain is happy to sell arms to the Saudis, it might as well sell its soccer teams. Then, there are still others — the ones who have abused Khashoggi’s widow for daring to challenge the morality of the takeover — who are perfectly happy to embrace it.

Reasons to buy PIF has not bought Newcastle because it loves soccer or the leafy city in England’s Northeast. It has done so to diversify its economy, to enmesh strategic allegiances in sport and culture to rehabilitate its image, to associate Saudi Arabia with soccer before they associate it with the starving children in Yemen. Newcastle United and those fans are being used, just as Manchester City or PSG or Chelsea — or soccer as a whole — are being used by those with different axes to grind. But blame should also go to authorities who allowed this to happen time and time again — the Premier League, UEFA, FIFA, bodies who are supposed to protect and cherish the sport, but have instead sold it off to the highest bidder. To the natural, logical, even unavoidable, c onclu sion t h at t he only way for clubs to compete, the only way for owners to restore hope, is through money. And Saudi Arabia has the most money.

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