I’m sure many football fans who follow the game in Britain will share in my despair at some of the characteristics of the modern game. Since the Premier League necessarily pulled it out of the doldrums and into the 21st century, it has continued to grow, but now to a point that it has grown so far, it can’t even see its own feet.
Ultimately that growth has taken much of the joy out of the game. Most prominently demonstrated by an abundance of football YouTubers getting angry about the most trivial of things. This isn’t what football was meant to be about, is it?
To me and many others football is a fun hobby and national pastime, so it makes me sad that for so many it’s become an opportunity to simply get angry and vent frustration.
Probably the best example of the soulless nature of modern football is the latest incarnation of Manchester City, assembled by an oil state, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for the purpose of Sportwashing. A club that made their now annual visit to the AMEX recently running out 4-1 winners.
But rather than being awestruck by their superiority, I was left feeling numb. A team that is potentially the most talented ever assembled to compete in English domestic competitions, but one that given the circumstances that talent was amalgamated, it’s hard to find any joy in.
The way football is going all the joy that we love will soon be dead and all that will be left is angry people settling grudges about whose club is bigger and whose club is ‘tinpot’, whilst sovereign wealth funds pump billions into a small group of “super-clubs”, who continually compete for all the major honours.
The recent takeover at Newcastle by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund PIF is for many, including myself, an aberration. But it is just another step along the current path of modern British football. But a step that has seemingly woken up many to the fact that its endless search for growth and success has gone too far.
Newcastle’s recent trip to our rivals Crystal Palace saw Palace supporters unveil a striking banner in protest at the PIF’s involvement in the Premier League. A protest that received claims of racism that were disregarded by the Metropolitan Police. Similar criticisms of Man City’s owners have received similar claims of racism too, claims raised to mask the genuine and important message the protests are making.
The human rights abuses in question are vast. According to Amnesty international, the human rights watch group, both Saudi Arabia and UAE have terrible human rights record. Both have a record over the repression of the rights to freedom of expression, both countries retain the death penalty, which includes the threat of the death penalty because of “same-sex sexual activity”. Whilst several detainees remain in prison past the completion of their sentences without legal justification or because of grossly unfair trials.
To their credit, Palace’s supporters have carried out this type of protest several times before, but as has been pointed out, they are themselves among several British clubs with some level of Saudi investment. And after all, the Premier League continues to make millions selling TV rights to these parts of the world and doing business (directly or indirectly) with regimes that commit human rights abuses and are in direct contradiction to the campaigns from the Premier League and its member clubs for greater diversity and the removal of discrimination.
The reality is that hypocrisy is rife in football and most clubs have little moral high ground left to stand upon. Some have suggested that Brighton fans should borrow the banner that was displayed by Palace fans for the trip of Newcastle to the AMEX this weekend. It would certainly look good being unfurled at the same time as the adverts for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix that were going around the LED advertising board surrounding the AMEX pitch at recent matches. An event Amnesty international has accused of being a prominent example of sportswashing.
It’s worth caveating here that I have been informed that this advertisement is not a direct club partner, but a sponsorship independent of the club with a third party who are responsible for the LED advertising board for part of the time on match days.
Nonetheless, indirectly or not they are using club property to advertise the event, so we can’t wash our hands of responsibility completely, it reflects on us all, literally in the case of the supporters in the stands on matchdays.
This is an issue throughout football. It wasn’t long ago that Albion changed their sponsor from national paint brand Sandtex to local restaurant Donatello, in part because of the formers links to Focus DIY, a company owned by the infamous former Albion Chairman Bill Archer. And the club was far more desperate for money then than it is now. A statement of principal far removed from most of modern football.
Whilst I appreciate the club must broaden and increase its commercial revenue streams to compete in the topflight, I believe this urge to compete should not come before our moral compass and social conscience. Something the club takes great pride in through its community programs, but one that could be badly damaged by such associations.
Some will say, to be able to become wealthy enough to own a Premier League football club in modern football, you need to be a billionaire and there are little to no billionaires without questionable morality in their past. But there is are questionable elements of a persons past and then there is enacting human rights abuses on a population of over 30 million people.
In my view, change must be driven by a want from all sides. When talking about his role in the Ireland peace process, Tony Blair spoke about the importance of change being a trade between all parties rather than it just being the easier option for one or both parties to embrace. It’s easy to forget just how difficult a peace deal in Ireland between Unionists and Republicans was seen to achieve back in the 1990’s.
Does the Saudi Arabian state have the same inclination for change? Well signs and statements being made by the regime suggest the answer to that is yes, most notably “Saudi Vision 2030” spelling out how they plan to reinforce economic and investment activities, increasing non-oil international trade, and promoting a softer and more secular image of the country.
In a recent interview with CMEC (the Conservative Middle East Council) Dr Hoda Al-Helassie, a member of the Kingdom’s advisory Shura Council, spoke positively about reforms and progress, telling sceptics to come to Saudi Arabia and take a look for themselves.
But the plan has been criticised for lacking a vision on the improvements of human right. Abdullah Alaoudh, one the initiators, described it as “the chapter that we think has been missing in the Saudi Vision 2030.”
The organisation the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated in a detailed review of Saudi reforms. “While the changes are potentially far-reaching, their ultimate direction is uncertain. Most are individually minor (and few are wholly unprecedented), and they remain quite reversible.” Whilst Amnesty international told The G20 to not “buy the spin” and called it “shameless hypocrisy”.
Some in this discussion over the PIF’s takeover at Newcastle have pointed to the hypocrisy of numerous PIF investments in the UK and other western industries. But rather than this being a sign that we don’t care, these are part of a wider strategy of influence by involvement from the West.
There are many areas of grey here. But few are saying don’t do business with Saudi Arabia at all. Investment to influence modernisations and change is part of the strategy from the west to eradicate human rights abuses in various parts of the world and encourage change. But this should be considered separate from investment in sport from sovereign wealth funds, which are initiated to garner public favour for the country’s regime. The two things are very different.
That isn’t to say all trade and investments with Saudi Arabia are of equal value, some are equally if not more morally questionable and detrimental than the Saudi Arabian investment in Newcastle United. Such as the involvement of the West with various parts of the world in the arms trade deals, which are equally being questioned by human rights groups. But those are for a separate discussion to that about the future of modern football.
Some will say the investment from PIF shines a light on these issues. This ignores the fact that this spotlight can bring significantly more positive than negative media coverage and that the aim is to achieve a net reputational benefit, not to erase bad publicity altogether.
Which takes us back to the nub of the reason why people care so much of sportswashing of this type. It’s about sovereign wealth funds like PIF and the Abu Dhabi United Group attempting to use sporting success to mask the human rights abuses in their country.
When a western company with PIF investment is successful, the PIF don’t get praise across the world. But if and when Newcastle are successful under their ownership, they will get praise from football fans throughout the world, overshadowing their awful deeds at home.
Some fans of clubs with owners who have been criticised have called out fellow supporters criticism as driven by jealousy. A view that is at best incredibly cynical and in my view appears to take an attitude that a football clubs’ success is deserving of praising owners and should be prioritised ahead of millions of people’s suffering.
This kind of attitude is why protests are important. Sportswashing that is happening at Man City and Newcastle diverts attention from their owners’ human rights abuses. And when thinking of the owners, rather than thinking of the human suffering that they are responsible for, many instead think of sporting success.
There are a depressing number of regimes committing human rights abuses throughout the world, which deserve more media coverage. But few use Premier League football in an attempt of Sportswashing like is happening at Newcastle or Man City. That’s why this is being spoken about so much in the English media.
Protests from the public, as shown by the recent European Super League protests, can be hugely influential. And can force government and/or industry to enforce or simply threaten sanctions, which leads to positive change. Change that football so fiercely needs.
I’ve spent most of the past 18 months working from home and getting out for walks at lunchtime, when I can around my work schedule. One of my regular lunchtime walks takes me past a school playground, where noticeably about 90% of the kids there are usually competing in one big game of football.
This is standard practice in playgrounds across the country and the world. Many of our first memories of football will be playing the game rather than watching it. For me this is why football truly is the people’s game, we are all a small part of it.
As Newcastle fans have rightly pointed out, the Premier League sold its moral standing a long time ago. And as the Newcastle fans have demonstrated, most football supporters don’t care about the morals of their owners as long as they bring success to the team. So, some will complain, most will ignore it and we will all have to live with the consequences. Because many have forgotten what football is truly about, the sport and the taking part, not the winning.
The future of football hinges on how we as a supporter base choose to react to the ongoing bastardisation of our national game. We have all been to blame for that, greedily encouraging excesses in search of success. But if football wants to rediscover its soul, something must change and us supporters are the ones who need to make it happen.
I still love football and so do so many others, as demonstrated by all those kids playing the game in playgrounds across the world. But just because that’s the case now doesn’t mean it will always be so. The bastardisation of our great game is in my view approaching breaking point. We need to act soon before the love is gone.