Mike Ashley’s reportedly imminent departure from Newcastle United has been celebrated with unusual passion. It serves as the clearest indicator of the degree to which Ashley sucked the life out of one of England’s proudest clubs.
Sacking Kevin Keegan. Briefly renaming St. James’s Park after his company Sports Direct. Compelling Rafa Benitez to resign. Investing criminally low amounts of money into the squad. The laundry list of Newcastle fan’s gripes with Ashley is a long one, and the suspension of his tenure has unsurprisingly been perceived as the revival of one of English football’s sleeping giants. But even minor scrutiny of Ashley’s replacement, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia, leaves one appalled by the absence of basic moral judgment in assessing Newcastle’s new ownership.
Ashley is anything but a paragon of moral virtue, his use of zero-hours contracts at Sports Direct – an exploitative labour agreement that has been found to deepen poverty and inequality – serving as the clearest illustration of that truism. Yet all evils are not made alike, and as much as many would like to think otherwise, he is certainly the lesser of the two in this instance.
A tactless retail tycoon he may be, a human rights-abusing regime who murders political dissidents (i.e. Jamal Khashoggi) and conducts indiscriminate killing of civilians (i.e. Yemen) he is not. Equating Ashley and Saudi Arabia is ludicrous, and we should not allow our annoyance with the former to obscure our perception of the latter.
Understandably, Newcastle supporters may be reluctant to change their viewpoint. An honourable and loyal fanbase have been routinely deprived not just of the success they crave, but the ambition to attain it. They will soon have owners with the resources to fulfil that ambition. Why should they condemn them?
Yet assumptions of dramatic success should be questioned. True, funding from the United Arab Emirates enabled the City Football Group to transform Manchester City into one of the biggest clubs in the world. But times have undoubtedly changed.
We live in a post-Football Leaks world, where scrutiny of funding sources and the demands of Financial Fair Play is – while not anywhere near strict enough – harsher than in 2008. FFP’s basic tenet is that teams cannot spend more than they make, and where City was – until recently – able to circumvent FFP without punishment by inflating sponsorship deals, Newcastle may not be so lucky.
If forced to find new sponsors to enable a squad overhaul, the PIF may run into trouble. Newcastle has a dedicated but nevertheless local and largely working-class fanbase. It’s what makes the Magpies such a storied club, and it also makes them wholly ill-suited to ravenous profit-seeking advertisers. The Saudis may well be able to utilize their vast clout to amass sponsors, but a summer splurge on players is not necessarily a formality.
There is also the task of actually running a successful football operation. For all the funding City have, their success could not have been achieved without sporting director Txiki Begiristain, who provides the strategic thinking that has ensured City’s billions are well-spent.
Investing heavily in the academy, revamping training facilities, and constructing a sensible recruitment team have all been conducted under City’s new ownership. Will such changes be brought to Newcastle? Will the PIF have the foresight to institute them? It’s a complete unknown. Newcastle can’t expect to be a major player in the Premier League without intelligent planning and organization, and if the Saudi ownership overlooks it, sustainable success will be virtually impossible.
Remnants of the Ashley era may still remain under new ownership as well. Many fans bemoaned commodification and commercialization of the club under Ashley. That wouldn’t change under Saudi ownership. If anything, it’ll be worse. As Barney Ronay wrote in the Guardian, “Ashley wants to sell you a cheap nylon tracksuit. Saudi Arabia wants to sell you a soft-focus view of its oppressive regime, safe in the knowledge that a mega-spending spree will provide instant distraction, thereby treating the fanbase of a great British football club as useful idiots in the soft‑power game.”
Therein lies the primary issue of the new ownership: they are using Newcastle United and its supporters as a political pawn for their reputation laundering chess match. Where for a fan success for the club is an aim in and of itself, for the PIF, success for Newcastle is a gateway to success for the Saudi regime.
They can integrate themselves within international culture and investment by developing a benign profile that can obfuscate their perennial human rights abuses. It’s not that the football club becomes irrelevant – it’s worse. It becomes a key cog in a cunning foreign policy ploy, implicating the entire sport in the process.
Newcastle is by no means the only piece to the superpower puzzle. Manchester City, PSG, and Chelsea are just some of the clubs affiliated with problematic dictatorships to varying degrees. It’s just that the Magpies have become the latest addition, the shiny new toy in the overstuffed toy box of a corrupt, entrenched elite that is further perverting the beautiful game.
Newcastle United fans are not getting their club back, they’re being stripped of it. Their team will no longer represent a respectable working-class community, but a distant autocracy seeking to brainwash the Western public. Ashley’s departure serves as an eerie reminder of an important lesson: be careful what you wish for.