No Room For Decency

Supporting a football club is an entirely irrational yet easily explicable affair. It is as much about the frenzy that follows the gasping anticipation as a beautifully struck free-kick curls into the back of the net as it is about memories of childhood, bonds of friendship and the history of cities.

The more cynical among us have managed to accept football’s financialized reality but still struggle with some of the dilemmas it throws at us. It has become as much about revenues and dividends, players stats and transfer values as about passion, trophies and sporting glory. Incongruities that we accept as effortlessly as the coexistence of brutal tackles and vulgar language with moments of fair play and plain human decency.

But when Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, PIF1, the rogue state’s sovereign wealth fund with total estimated assets of €430 billion, purchased a majority stake in Newcastle United FC a last line of defense was broken. The attackers are alone in front of an empty goal.

As a Liverpool supporter I have never cared much for Newcastle. I’ll glance at its league position mostly because my uncle supports the club. The little sympathy I have stems from sketchy childhood references. Supermac Malcolm McDonald’s relentless scoring in the Seventies, Liverpool legend Kevin Keegan’s managerial spell there and the unforgettable 1996 roller-coaster at Anfield when we beat them 4-3. It was a time when Newcastle produced some of their best football and big names like Asprilla, Ginola and Alan Shearer.

The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s name is not readily associated with football let alone Tyneside. But billboards of his photograph along-side Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s were displayed outside St James’ Park last week to protest his brutal murder in October 2018. Described by the UN as “overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level officials” of the Saudi state it is just one example of the ruthless persecution of government critics. According to Amnesty International “virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year”.2

It is tempting to blame Newcastle United for all this – inept and desperate as their previous owners were – but the absolute blame lies with the Premier League for allowing the deal.

No one would like to be in the shoes of lifetime Newcastle supporters. Their overwhelming majority are likely to abhor human rights abuses.

Which raises the question: How dare the Premier League place the burden of such a distressing moral choice on the shoulders of a parent forcing them to explain – or lie – to their children about the brutality of their cherished club’s new owners? How do you explain to a 10-year-old that the footballer they idolize is paid by a regime that beheads people, denies women the vote and kills journalists at will?

Sacha Deshmukh, head of Amnesty International UK, wrote3 that the way the Premier League waved this deal through raised deeply troubling questions about sports-washing and the integrity of English football. At a time when pressure must be put on the Saudi regime to end arbitrary detentions, the deal helps it fix its tarnished image.

The glamour of football is a dizzying distraction. As fans celebrate the dribbling skills of their expensive players, slick Saudi narratives will manoeuvre into the pages of match-day programmes; politically loaded slogans will flash across stadium billboards. Saudi Arabia and football glamour will merge and become accepted. Human rights will be relegated. Saudi Arabia will then sell its acceptance by the UK and the Premier League to the rest of the world.

It would be right to argue that the British government and its military industry have sold arms to Saudi Arabia for decades and that it might be too much to expect of the Premier League to ride the high ground and reject a take-over in an industry as innocuous as football. It’s a valid though cheap line of defense but it does capture the oppressive hypocrisy and widespread ignorance of our time.

Both were in full display when the rest of the Premier League clubs protested the Saudi deal but only with regard to issues of competition and financial fair play, worried that Newcastle will strike lucrative sponsorship deals with its new owners. It has finally come to this: Our weekly football experience as slick corporate standoffs between rogue Arab dictators, Russian oligarchs and American moguls.

Shameful as it is, in the end, it is in fact a pity because the Premier League has missed a huge opportunity to make a meaningful statement on human rights. It may have completely escaped them that if they can’t put human rights above all else they cannot be seen as credible messengers of their otherwise worthy No Room for Racism campaign4.  

They can boast of running the best football league in the world but this will count as a humiliating defeat relegating them from the one league that trumps everything else in British culture: Decency. Of course, in the new Tory ‘Global’ Britain that too is in short supply.