Two weeks ago I wrote about the takeover of Newcastle United that was funded primarily by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. “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’”. Last weekend the Holmesdale Fanatics, a vocal Palace supporters group followed Amnesty UK’s lead by displaying a banner [see picture] at Selhurst Park when Newcastle were the visitors.
This was not the first banner of protest that the Holmesdale Fanatics have displayed. Previously they have targeted the embryonic Super League, the Premier League, Sky Sports and others who, in their minds, are focused on generating money to the detriment of the supporters. Many feel these organisations are legitimate targets but somebody (almost certainly of a Geordie persuasion) felt that last Saturday’s banner was a step too far and made an official complaint to the Metropolitan Police Service on the grounds that it was racist.
The MPS were duty bound to investigate this claim. Like many others I was incensed that the police should have to spend time on this and I was approached by the BBC to comment on the banner. I told Eleanor Oldroyd on BBC 5Live’s Sunday Breakfast programme “
[Here is the link – my conversation with Oldroyd starts just after 2 hours 28 minutes in]. Here is a transcript from that interview:
“Eleanor Oldroyd: Croydon Metropolitan Police received a report of an offensive banner displayed by Crystal Palace fans. Officers are assessing the situation and are carrying out enquiries. Any allegation of racist abuse will be taken very seriously. Well, Richard Foster is a football writer for The Guardian and his own site The Football Mine and is also a Crystal Palace fan and was at the game yesterday, so what did you see?
Foster: I got to my seat about five minutes before kick-off and you could see there was a banner, it wasn’t the biggest banner I’ve ever seen but you could work out what it was directed at, and clearly it was directed at the recent takeover of Newcastle United. It certainly raised a point of discussion but obviously five minutes before kick-off you’re more concerned with the team line-ups than a political debate. But we’re all aware of Newcastle being taken over by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia along with Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners.
I find it incredible that police are going to investigate where we still live in a country where freedom of speech is part of our constitution. The things that were said I think most rational people would recognise that the Saudi Arabian government is let’s say not the most pure democracy in the world. So it seems incredible that they are looking to charge somebody with something. These banners go up quite a lot, it’s a group called the Holmesdale Fanatics who are based at the Holmesdale end of the ground and there have been lots of banners – they have protested against the Super League and about greed generally within the Premier League. To say that they are going to prosecute somebody, it sticks in my craw.
Oldroyd: The police are not necessarily going to charge anybody but they are investigating it presumably to find out if it’s a racist slur.
Foster: I see that and obviously there is no room for racism in football. It doesn’t matter who, what or where, you can’t have racism but I don’t think this was a racist incident. If you consider the Saudi Arabians have a terrible record in terms of LGBT. There’s a young guy who is 23 who has been sentenced to three years for taking a selfie. So please let’s not put this under a racist incident, it’s not racist, possibly it could be misinterpreted as such. The police are investigating, as you say there’s no charge yet. So somebody complained, I’m going to guess it’s someone from the Newcastle camp, but really talking about police concentrating on what they should be doing, I think they should be concentrating on other things apart from this.
Oldroyd: It’s not the first protest against this takeover as well. Do you think we are going to see a lot more?
Foster: Yes, I think sportswashing particularly in football has become a thing. Amnesty International said of Saudi Arabia that they are “sportswashing their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football”. So we can’t see football being used for these purposes. It is just morally wrong so someone has got to stand up, someone has got to act and actually say this is wrong. Good on the Palace fans for doing it and Newcastle are playing Chelsea next week and I would have thought Chelsea fans might even do that. We need to raise these issues. We can’t just say ‘oh they got rid of Mike Ashley, they didn’t like him.’ No, he wasn’t a particularly savoury character but the Saudis who are behind this takeover; we shouldn’t be dealing with them. Football should not be used for these purposes.
Oldroyd: it’s an uncomfortable issue for football. We should say at this point we don’t know where the complaint came from, initially to the police and what inspired them to investigate.
The majority of Newcastle fans I know are decent people and a fair few are uncomfortable at the Saudi connections but there is a sizeable number who are not overly concerned but actively revelling in being under new owners. While I understand the delight at being finally rid of Mike Ashley after years of under-investment, whereby the club was run primarily to generate profits rather than building solid football foundations, the glorification of the Saudi owners smacks of jumping out of the frying pan into an almighty conflagration.