Revolt over Super League shows how Newcastle deal could spark change
Already it feels as if people’s brains are melting. The takeover of Newcastle United by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia has led to any number of explanations and justifications being given, everything short of what is right in front of our eyes.
Amanda Staveley, who now owns 10% of the club, can tell the BBC that “very much our partner is not the Saudi state”. The Premier League can express its relief at having secured “legally binding guarantees” that the Saudi state will not involve itself in the running of Newcastle. Guarantees it is not its place, it says, to make public.
This isn’t gaslighting, where someone deliberately sets out to drive another mad through repeated untruths, but the effect is certainly the same. It’s impossible not to look at a situation which has been made possible only through the transfer of money belonging to the Saudi Arabian state and not believe that the Saudi state is now in control of Newcastle. Except it’s absolutely not, and if anyone insists otherwise they may end up hearing from only the very best lawyers.
The fear is that this deal is significant. That it becomes a watershed, a moment when English football finally, irrevocably gave up any pretence of being a sport associated with principle. There will no doubt be scoffing at the back, those who point to existing ownership at other Premier League clubs or to continuing issues around, say, diversity or gambling or supporter representation. They will say this is more of the same, only a couple of hundred billion larger.
These people may be right, as may the Newcastle supporters who ask to be spared the politics. The fans who want a moment of celebration at escaping the yoke of Mike Ashley, regardless of the consequences and the fact that mid-table Premier League mediocrity and an unsympathetic owner are something fans of 72 other clubs might see as an aspiration.
Yet that’s not all that’s wrong here. It’s not only because it’s Saudi Arabia that isn’t taking direct control and it’s not because it’s Newcastle it’s not taking direct control of. It’s because all the red lights around this deal have been flashing for months and years, and the sirens are still wailing. If football, the fans, the players and the executives alike, chooses to suck up what’s happened – to not brush it under the carpet, but not do anything either – then the idea this great game is something more than just another commodifiable form of entertainment also cannot stand.
This is where the acquisition of Newcastle differs from plans to create a European Super League. Supporters were lauded for being vocal in their outrage at the plans. Even if the suspicion remains that the apparent willingness of the UK government to legislate against a breakaway was what really caused the plans to halt (for now, the European Super League still exists as an entity and is still suing Uefa), fan discontent was the reason given. But that discontent was an act of self-interest. People saw their game being stolen and wanted it back. Who in the UK, right now, is truly at risk from a regime that doesn’t own Newcastle but imprisons human rights activists, persecutes gay people, denies women’s rights and dismembers journalists?
The recent period that has seen the UK ‘take back control’ has also been one of fatalism. There has been an acceptance that what must be must be, whether that’s 150,000 people dying in a pandemic or migrant dinghies being sent back out to sea. Another aspect of the maddening current moment around Newcastle is that you can feel a similar shrug beginning to rise. What can actually be done? Why even bother to do it?
Here’s one thing that can be done: ask that Amnesty International’s proposed changes to the Premier League’s owners and directors test are implemented. Amnesty’s amendments, which were sent to the league’s executives last year, would ensure that it would be impossible for someone to take over a Premier League club if they had been “complicit in serious violations of international human rights law or any conduct that is at odds with the Premier League’s anti‑discrimination policy”.
In the scramble to save prestige and broadcast revenue in the wake of the ESL, the Premier League found within itself the ability to draw up a new “owners’ charter” committing clubs to turning down another breakaway (or at least to paying a lot of money in reparation if they did so). It showed the league could change, and at speed, when the right kind of pressure was on, but it has yet to be signed off.
Fans, pundits, players and political parties who say they care about the game should write to their clubs, lobby their MPs, hoist a flag, hire a plane with a plastic banner, and get Amnesty’s changes added to the charter. They would not fix what has gone wrong in the past but they would offer hope for the future. And that, as many Newcastle fans have said this week, is a good start.