Authoritarian states are 'sportswashing' their reputations with beloved UK clubs
Newcastle United fans during the Premier League match against Aston Villa at St. James's Park, Newcastle on Sunday 13 February 2022 | Alamy
China and the Summer and Winter Olympics; Qatar and the 2022 Fifa World Cup; the United Arab Emirates and Manchester City: all, to my way of thinking, examples of authoritarian states seeking to photoshop their grim human rights records and wriggle towards international legitimacy without facing consequences for their actions.
They imprison journalists, banish and enslave the “ethnically undesirable”. They repress women and persecute gay people. Instead of sanctions, these states are enabled to invest heavily in global sport. Each has a clear and increasingly well-trodden path in mind – what, in my view, is the “sportswashing” of their reputations.
This an important story of global influence, not a note for the back pages.
The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund’s acquisition of Newcastle United Football Club, costing slightly more than one of the Saudi Crown Prince’s holiday homes, injected new energy into warnings against enabling states to seemingly exploit sport to manufacture an undeserved veneer of respectability.
Guiding an inhumane regime down this path of public redemption had been rehearsed by brokers reproducing the blueprint for the 2008 UAE takeover of Manchester City.
As predicted for Newcastle United, Manchester City underwent an unprecedented transformation. The purchase of £2bn-worth of international superstars saw the club turn its one trophy in 35 years into five league titles, six League Cups, and two FA Cups in just 10 years. To illustrate its dominance, City’s current defence costs more than £400m, a sum greater than that spent on defence budgets in more than 60 countries in 2019. From the off, this apparent sportswashing mission was certain to succeed; the autocratic UAE would be sanitised.
Newcastle United, a sadly fallen giant of the English game, will also once again reach the top, though this time it will not be a loyal Magpie fan with the biggest grin, it will be the human rights-denying leaders of the Saudi state. And the club’s new owners are not wasting any time.
It beheads and amputates on an industrial scale. And it will buy the Premier League trophy
Newcastle, after years of chronic underinvestment, was Europe’s biggest January transfer spender, breaking the Premier League’s record and topping more than the combined preceding decade of January expenditure.
Proven Premier League players including Chris Wood and Kieran Trippier joined up-and-coming Brazil international Bruno Guimarães as the latest additions to what to my mind is a Saudi state smokescreen to cover up its disdain for basic human rights.
This city’s historic one club, the Newcastle United of Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan and its fiercely loyal fanbase, proved too good a soft-power investment opportunity for the new majority shareholder, an arm of the Saudi state. It is a country ranking 170th of 180 countries on press freedom, responsible for the savage murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with the second highest number of imprisoned writers and intellectuals in the world, and responsible for more than 18,000 civilian deaths in Yemen since 2015. It beheads and amputates on an industrial scale. And it will buy the Premier League trophy.
The existing regulatory framework permitted this state to secure its target of a Premiership football club, deeming its leaders “fit and proper” owners. It appears to me one of the world’s renowned regulatory bodies, the English Premier League, sanitised murder and inhuman repression. [In a statement at the time of the takeover, the EPL said: “The Premier League has now received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club.”]
The saddest thing is the normality of these events in sport; everyone knows. Fans rejoice at the in-flow of petro-money but it is short-term joy. Sport has tumbled down this path – the allocation of its major tournaments beset by allegations of bribery, its iconic clubs in the hands of autocrats migrating to mass popular sports. What could look more normal?
Wouldn’t it be a red-letter day if a sport governing body stood up to be counted, refused to legitimise the illegitimate, showed in deeds that governance is about ethics and standards, and that sport should always be run by these attributes?
Lord Triesman is a Labour peer and former chair of the Football Association. With research assistance by Hal Hooberman
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