Sportswashing doesn’t wash with Geordies

A few years ago Palace were playing Newcastle at Selhurst and there was the customary sizeable following from the North east. The game itself, a pedestrian goalless draw, did not live long in the memory, but one particular aspect that occurred off the field did. At one stage Mike Ashley was spotted in the stands and every single one of the black-and-white clad supporters began a lusty rendition of their anti-Mike Ashley chant, which goes along the lines of “Get out of our club, get out of our club. You fat Cockney bastard, get out of our club”.

The Geordies have been desperate to rid themselves of Ashley for many years with accusations that his singular lack of ambition beyond making a tidy profit for the Sports Direct owner, has led to continuous under-investment in the club. So when Amanda Staveley rode into town on her white charger with £305 million in her saddle bag she was welcomed with open arms by the Gallowgate end et al as a way out of the hated Ashley regime. After a couple of false starts Staveley has eventually delivered and the Toon Army have been rejoicing ever since. 

There was one issue that clouded the blue skies that had appeared over St. James’ Park. Staveley’s consortium was 80% led by Saudi Arabia’s Private Investment Fund (PIF) sovereign wealth fund which sparked a fair amount of consternation. The link with Saudi’s PIF, which is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman opened up accusations of sportswashing. Much of this condemnation has stemmed from human rights groups, such as Amnesty UK who, according to Reuters, have accused the oil-rich nation of “sportswashing their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football”. 

Staveley’s immediate defence was to highlight that Newcastle are a long way off from being a top club. As they currently reside just above Norwich City in 19th place and have been infrequent visitors to the top half of the Premier League table since the heady days of Bobby Robson, she has a point. “We are buying a club that could be relegated next week,” Staveley told Reuters in a telephone interview. “If we were thinking about this as being some type of sportswashing exercise we would have made different choices.” 

Staveley might also focus on the hypocrisy of Newcastle bearing the brunt of the anger when such links with dubious regimes are so prevalent in our society. As Simon Kuper of the Financial Times put it succintly: “anyone surprised that Britain welcomes such shady money hasn’t been paying attention.” Additionally, foreign investment in English clubs has been going on for many years, dating back to Sam Hammam who took over Wimbledon in 1977 as they entered the Football League. The Lebanese businessman led them on a meteoric rise to top flight football by 1986, and just over ten years later Mohammed Al-Fayed took over Fulham. Nowadays the majority of Premier League clubs are owned by foreign investors who are attracted by the lure of the world’s most popular league.

Newcastle are by no means the first English club to be accused of entering a Faustian pact by selling their soul to owners who are considered unsavoury by many people. Most supporters of Manchester City and Chelsea could not give a fig about the morals of Sheikh Mansour  and Roman Abramovich so the argument goes why should Newcastle’s fans be overly concerned by Bin Salman. A Chelsea acquaintance of mine who is a keen advocate of left wing principles would normally be anti-Abramovich and vocal about how he became a billionaire. As was reported in The Times, “Abramovich famously emerged triumphant after the ‘aluminium wars’, in which more than 100 people are believed to have been killed in gangland feuds over control of the lucrative smelters.” That would set off all sorts of alarm bells with my Chelsea friend. “I don’t give a **** about his past,” he says. “All I’m concerned with is my club. When they cross the white line football matters override politics.” 

Similar issues exist with the owners of Manchester City. Sheikh Mansour is the half-brother of the Sheikh Khalifa, who is the absolute ruler of the United Arab Emirates, a country that many argue is effectively a dictatorship. Nick Cohen summed it up in his article for The Guardian thus “The Emirate monarchies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia rely on a system of economic exploitation you struggle to find a precedent for…But comparisons with apartheid or the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or America’s old deep south miscarry because the Arab princelings import their working class rather than rule over subdued inhabitants”.

The fundamental question is whether supporters should have any moral compass with regards to their clubs’ owners? Most fans care about their performances on the pitch and not a single jot about the background of the people who run them or how they make their money. As long as they have the best interests of their club at heart and are willing to lavish their wealth on the club all is dandy. As Bill Shankly once said, “At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques”.

Staveley has courted popularity amongst the fans by talking to Tyneside idols Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan about possible roles at the club, which ensures that any talk of dubious owners is swept aside in a tidal wave of past glories.  With such a financial backing comes expectation and Staveley is setting her sights high. “Of course I want to win the Premier League,” she said. “At some point, of course, we want trophies. The last time the club won a trophy was 1955. But this is a long term project and it will take some patient capital,” she said. For thousands of Newcastle fans the source of that ‘patient capital’ is of little or no importance. 

Published by richardfoster60

Author, broadcaster, historian, journalist. A regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports and talkSPORT, my latest book is highly acclaimed Premier League Nuggets - "brilliantly written" - Darren Fletcher, "I love Premier League Nuggets" - Guy Mowbray, "the book is a labour of love" - Peter Drury.

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