There used to be a sport over there.
Football has never been pure. There have always been the rich looking to improve their reputations by investing in clubs. Even in its amateur days, football was rotten, amateurism itself by the end a carapace to try to stop the working classes taking over the game.
Clubs have always been owned by dictators, drug barons, conmen and shysters. Y todavía, in England certainly, a spirit somehow endured. Clubs became emblematic of their regions, repositories of the spirit of the local people. Nowhere was that more true than Newcastle, where the stadium stands on a hill over the city, a clearly visible part of the skyline. And now it is just another club owned by a foreign state, oligarch, billionaire or hedge fund, another heritage asset sold off to an overseas investor, a pawn in the bigger games of global capitalism and diplomatic policy.
Which makes the footage of fans at St James’ Park on Thursday, gleefully singing about getting their club back, desperately poignant. It’s hard to imagine a means by which it could be more profoundly taken away. It is owned by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, a kingdom described in the House of Commons three years ago by the MP for Newcastle Central, Chi Onwurah, as “a murderous state”.
PIF is, the Premier League insists, a “separate” entity to the state of Arabia Saudita. Perhaps if you say the word often enough you might even be able to persuade yourself it’s true. Nothing, después de todo, says separate quite like the fact that it is chaired by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.
The entities are so separate, De hecho, that on the PIF board sits Majid al-Qasabi, the acting media minister responsible for ending the piracy by beoutQ of the Doha-based broadcaster beIN Sports. The restoration of beIN’s licence in Saudi Arabia required PIF to engage directly with the Saudi General Authority for Competition. What could be more separate than that?
The Premier League speaks of having legally binding guarantees of separation, although quite what those are is hard to ascertain. Después de todo, getting independent legal advice in Saudi Arabia is all but impossible, and the idea of the Premier League taking legal action against the Saudi state is frankly laughable, given its failure to initiate civil action in Saudi Arabia over beoutQ. (Which is one of the biggest problems of modern football governance: many of the owners are so wealthy as to be in effect unaccountable.)
Does the Premier League care? Bird & Bird, a law firm operating for the Premier League, employed a number of experts to investigate whether there is indeed separation between PIF and the Saudi state. At least three of them concluded there was not, with one submitting Saudi government documents that described the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the ultimate beneficiary owner of PIF. All three speak of having been ignored since July, when the Qatari chairman of beIN, the president of Paris Saint-Germain, Nasser al-Khelaifi, first had informal talks with PIF in Doha, a necessary step in breaking the impasse.
The Premier League points out that piracy was not the reason for the takeover initially being blocked. Rather PIF had not filled in form four, relating to the directors and owners test. It completed that form only after the piracy issue had been resolved; it seems reasonable to suggest that it didn’t complete that form until it knew it would pass. Dialogue has been going on for several months; that a solution has been found must be a relief to all concerned, dado Bin Salman’s warning to Boris Johnson that Anglo-Saudi relations would suffer if the deal continued to be blocked.
Como están las cosas, the idea of separation is a useful fig leaf for everybody. It means football – the Premier League, fans, the media – can get on with watching sport without having to worry about women’s rights or gay rights or the rights of religious minorities. We can get on with talking about whether Newcastle might be signing Philippe Coutinho or Eden Hazard rather than worrying about the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi or the jailed blogger Raif Badawi.
Fans speak of entering a new era of hope and excitement, a self-absorption that feels sadly typical of the age. They talk of their suffering, for that is the great currency of modern fandom. Liverpool fans suffered through the 30-year drought between league titles, when they won only the four League Cups, three FA Cups and a Champions League; Manchester City fans suffered their years of being a well-liked laughing stock; nobody, aparentemente, can understand the suffering of a Newcastle fan whose average position in the 14 years of Mike Ashley’s reign has been 13th. Everybody suffers, and that can be used to justify, parece, almost anything, even if that means ignoring actual suffering, the sort that happens in a jail cell or a prison yard or a discreet room in a consulate.
Ian Lavery, the MP for Wansbeck and a Newcastle season-ticket holder, was so disgusted by the sponsorship deal with the payday loans company Wonga that he vowed never to set foot in St James’ again until they had gone. Yet last year he sent a letter to the digital, cultura, media and sport select committee of MPs to try to force the Premier League to explain its decision to block the takeover.
Onwurah’s concerns about Saudi Arabia have seemingly vanished and as she praised fans for supporting the takeover, she was thanked by Amanda Staveley’s husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi, when the deal was complete.
But actually this isn’t complicated. For all the obfuscations and hypocrisy, all the equivocation and whataboutery, there is only one question Newcastle fans and football more generally needs to ask: how do you feel about torture and murder?