When news of Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) interest in Newcastle first emerged in 2020 there was a flurry of opposition and hit-piece articles that formed a narrative around Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
While the reality probably lies with the dispute over broadcast rights in the Saudi kingdom, putting the human rights angle front and centre bears the hallmark of a propaganda tactic designed to elicit emotive arguments as to why PIF ownership was ‘inappropriate’.
Rather than ‘maintaining the image of the league’, the opposition was more likely to be formed of defensive sabotage attempts by established power clubs aiming to prevent a powerful competitor for European spots and world-class players.
The fury among the owners of other clubs – Everton, Manchester United and Tottenham in particular – can more truly be understood as frustration for having been blindsided that the deal was still on in the background, and tellingly it sounds as though the smaller clubs were more relaxed about the matter.
The human rights angle has merit in some honest quarters but doesn’t hold up to scrutiny in the global era of football.
In terms of the larger picture, if any nation with what Westerners might arbitrarily describe as a dubious human rights record were to be thrown out of international football, half of FIFA would be barred form the game.
This of course extends to Australia. If the Socceroos’ World Cup qualification opponents Saudi Arabia are the No. 1 reprehensible owners in the English Premier League, Manchester City are a fairly close second.
And the City group of course owns A-League champions Melbourne City. Logic therefore dictates that Melbourne City fans who are every bit as happy with the facility and player investment as Newcastle fans will be are equally guilty of sportswashing.
That is without going into the fact that more broadly every nation or industry on the planet has some form of significant relationship with PIF via Saudi Aramco, which provides the critical mass of the oil supply utilised in a large swathe of global industries.
One angle of critique follows the line of thinking that the Premier League and Newcastle have somehow “sold their soul”. It is worth remembering that that horse bolted for English football a long time ago. I would point to the time the English Premier League was formed in the early 1990s as to when it became a highly commercialised brand.
In an ideal world fans would have sizeable ownership stakes via supporter trusts and stadiums would have German-style safe standing areas allowing for affordable seating and a richer atmosphere. The vibrant soul of a club could then be honoured.
Instead we as a football fraternity invited holding companies to set up as an indirect way to allow the once barred practice of commercialised share trading in English clubs as listed companies.
Additionally, mandates for all-seated stadiums using safety as a pretext gentrified the attendance base and deprived younger fans of the opportunity to attend through the consequential rise of ticket prices.
The Newton Heath rebellion against Glazer ownership of Manchester United and the opposition to Rupert Murdoch’s earlier takeover attempt at the turn of the millennium both indicate the fact that clubs aren’t merely English institutions anymore but at least dual nationals as well as global sporting brands. This started becoming the case some time ago.
There is a dynamic where there simultaneously exists English fans of the local club and worldwide fans of that same club’s global brand.
The consequence of football becoming globalised – with the English Premier League the domestic league of focus in this phenomenon – is that the ownership and investment structure subsequently reflects the world we live in with all its good, bad and uncomfortable facets.
Indeed it is rather rich for the chairmen of clubs that attempted to form a franchise-inspired Super League to be complaining about money and image of the league given their breakaway idea would have completed the drift of clubs from being quasi-local institutions to being pure commercial franchises.