Toon takeover is a reputational issue, but it’s not black and white

By Ian Morris

I once cheated in a football match. Not in a calculated manner, but a blatant handball inexplicably missed by the referee that enabled me to score. Even at the age of 10 it felt uncomfortable, but I buried my shame and took the plaudits.

Having my football club taken over by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia feels a bit like that. I want to jump for joy because finally, Newcastle might soon be able to deliver the kind of football I haven’t seen for over 15 years and the top-level trophies I haven’t seen in my lifetime. But a sense of unease makes me contain my jubilation.

The Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United will have reputational consequences for all involved in it. But are they all as black and white as the famous shirts of the Magpies?

Saudi Arabia

In the immediate term, the deal has shone a light on the regime’s human rights record and resurfaced allegations around the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. US intelligence concluded the murder must have been sanctioned by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and chairman of the PIF, the investment fund that now owns 80% of Newcastle.

But of course, the furore will, sooner or later, die down. In the longer-term, the massive wealth of the PIF is likely to bring success to the club, and the reflected glory of that turnaround story will naturally benefit the reputation of the Saudi state. That is why the Saudis will pay well over the odds for Anthony Joshua to fight there, or to host a Formula 1 race. Association with high-profile sports events, teams and stars undoubtedly has a beneficial impact on the international image of states like Saudi; just look at the recent reports suggesting David Beckham is being paid mega-bucks for being one of the faces of the Qatar 2022 World Cup. That is the point of sportswashing.

If the Manchester City model adopted by the UAE is followed, the Saudis will also invest not just in the club itself but in the local community. City’s owners have invested heavily in an extensive community programme and large-scale regeneration of the local, formerly derelict area around the Etihad Campus, as well as creating one of the best youth training facilities in the world, mainly drawing on young talent from the local area.

Such investment would of course be hugely welcomed in Newcastle, and with good reason. If the change of ownership brings with it much needed investment into the club and local communities and causes, then isn’t that a good thing? Surely it is better than 14 years of Mike Ashley investing the bare minimum in maintaining the club’s position as a billboard for Sports Direct?

But if, as would be likely, that community investment meant that governments and businesses become more inclined to turn a blind eye to abuses of human rights elsewhere in the world, there is a danger that good deeds in one corner of North East England will have been traded in for an unspoken permit allowing worse ones to take place elsewhere.  Ethically speaking, murky shades of grey rather than black and white.

The Premier League

Much criticism has been aimed at the Premier League for waiving this deal through, with the likes of Amnesty International pointing out the lack of any consideration for human rights in the League’s ‘fit and proper’ test for owners and directors.

The PIF is by no means the first owner of a Premier League club to have questionable moral standing. Sheikh Mansour, of Manchester City, is one of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, where accusations of human rights violations are rife. His predecessor Thaksin Shinawatra had a history of human rights violations and accusations of corruption in his native Thailand, where he had been prime minister. When Carson Yeung bought Birmingham City in 2009, his previous criminal conviction in Hong Kong for failing to disclose shareholdings in listed companies was not deemed sufficient for him to fail the ‘fit and proper’ test.

The Premier League – and elite professional football more generally – already suffers from the reputation that it is willing to sacrifice morality for money. The Newcastle takeover will have done nothing to help that, and there will come a point when it will surely be forced to implement tougher standards of governance.

Corporate sponsors

Companies spend millions on sports sponsorship deals precisely because they benefit from association with those sporting brands. But this can work the opposite way when the brand they are sponsoring becomes tarnished. Witness the hasty retreat of some of Tiger Woods’ backers in 2009 after his admission of marital infidelity, or those of Lance Armstrong after his drug-taking came to light.

Such reputational concerns won’t necessarily come into play here, as the likelihood is that companies already linked to the PIF will become the dominant sponsors of everything at Newcastle United soon enough. However, the PIF’s ability to agree lucrative sponsorship deals with companies they are linked to was hampered last week after a clear vote by Premier League clubs against such ‘related party’ deals being allowed. Critics say clubs with rich owners use such deals to help them get around financial fair play rules.

The club

And what of the club itself? Surely the reputation of Newcastle will take a battering? I’m not so sure.

Of course, hardcore protestors will continue to take aim at the club, that much is unavoidable. But its main stakeholder audiences look highly unlikely to take a strong stance. Shareholders are obviously onside. Corporate partners are probably not a huge concern (see above). And fans – the all-important fans – on early evidence are either highly supportive of the takeover, or willing to put up with it for the sake of success.

My own feeling is that it is difficult to judge the club too harshly when it is part of a flawed system with flawed governance. Newcastle is far from the only football club to have benefited from extremely wealthy and morally dubious owners. There have been and still are others within the Premier League, and among its elite European competitors.

Football is far from the only industry to benefit from morally-tainted riches. Indeed, as the FT pointed out, the UK Government itself lacks moral high ground on this issue having exported more goods (including arms) to Saudi Arabia last year than in 2018 when Khashoggi was murdered.

There is usually, nowadays, a separation between the perception of a football club and its owners. The perception of the former may be coloured a little by the latter, but few really judge Manchester United by the actions of the Glazers, or Newcastle United by the actions of Mike Ashley over the past 14 years.

Football clubs like these have a heritage and character that easily transcend temporary periods of ownership. Newcastle has a 130-year history and an incredibly passionate and loyal staff and fanbase that will eclipse the stewardship of the PIF, however long it lasts.

And what of the fans? What are they to make of it all? Like all things, there is a spectrum. I suspect most of the relatively silent majority feel like me – conflicted, with their moral distaste in direct battle with the longing for success on the pitch. The universal dislike of Mike Ashley has made this deal more palatable to most. Fans have been disenfranchised to the point that had Satan bought the club, he would possibly have been welcomed with record sales of tridents and a rendition of Highway to Hell.

With a hint of shame, after writing this piece I will probably go back to overlooking the bigger picture and focus on the football with more than a hint of excitement.

In many ways, I don’t mind Saudi Arabia’s investment fund owning Newcastle. In fact, if they bring success on the pitch and investment into the community, I will be delighted. The uncomfortable suspicion, however, is that if that ownership results in a veneer of respectability, will we have been unwitting participants in a much bigger and more important game than football?

As much as that is a challenge for governments, national bodies and big business rather than football fans, much like scoring after a handball, it still feels a little uncomfortable.