Other league owners are oil barons, gambling impresarios, tax exiles and another Gulf state – let’s not pretend they’re much better than PIF
When it was officially confirmed at 5:16 p.m. on Thursday last week that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund had successfully closed the deal to purchase Newcastle United from discount sportswear mogul Mike Ashley, public anger was palpable.
Human rights activists, LGBTQ + groups, women’s rights groups, supporters of most clubs other than Newcastle United fans who dressed in Saudi gowns with keffiyehs on their heads and Mohammed bin Salman masks on their faces as they walked the streets in front of St. James celebrated Park, sharing his dismay that the Premier League had ratified the deal.
In private, the reaction from the other 19 Premier League clubs has been fascinating. Board chairmen and chairmen choked on their cappuccinos at board meetings when their phones rang at 5:18 p.m. with league emails informing them of the decision. Some had already seen the news via push notifications when they broke online.
Why hadn’t they heard of it before? was a complaint to the Premier League head Richard Masters. Why hadn’t it been discussed long before in the recent rightsholders’ meeting? Why had many heard of it through the media, like the rest of the common people of football?
An emergency meeting was hastily called to discuss the matter, although it was too late to change anything by then. But here the Premier League clubs showed a significant misunderstanding of their own importance.
It is important to make it clear that as the apostrophe above suggests, these are the Premier League clubs, not the Premier League. They will come and go – some of them more than others – but if they go away for a year or more, the Premier League will still stay waiting for their return.
Why should they be consulted on a legally sensitive and confidential takeover by, well, anyone? While rivals were on the field, top clubs had united in the fight against the proposed Saudi takeover and similar objections were now being raised.
The opposition can be traced back to the damage that Saudi Arabia’s engagement could inflict on the Premier League brand. It had nothing to do with the overnight deal making Newcastle, one of the sleeping giants of English football, about ten times richer than Manchester City, the league’s richest club, and 17 times more affluent than Chelsea, their second.
Their dismay was in no way related to the prospect that they would all slide down the slippery slope of the pyramid of English football. That Arsenal and Spurs – and even Liverpool – could struggle to qualify for the Champions League in three to five years if Newcastle joined Manchester City and Chelsea, funded by their owners’ billions, and Manchester United, the revenues generate for yourself, in the top four.
In a league where spending the most money has a direct correlation to success, the notion that a financial giant equivalent to the Death Star is willing to overshadow them all was not a factor at all for their concern. It was the human rights issue, to be honest.
And could there be a branding problem with the takeover? Let’s examine this in more detail.
The Premier League clubs have owners including oil barons, gambling impresarios, tax exiles, another Gulf state and pornographers. Clubs like to accept money from sponsors who have admitted to turning a blind eye to money laundering and fraud. One club has links to a billionaire whose Wikipedia page has a section titled “Controversy”. Another is linked to a company accused of destroying the Amazon rainforest.
Trademark protection wasn’t all that big of a deal for Premier League executives when Manchester United Group Managing Director Richard Arnold announced they have “a long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia” and entered into a strategic partnership in 2017.
In short: there is hardly a top club that is completely freed from one or the other evil. In reality, their outrage has very little to do with the Premier League brand or the morale of Newcastle’s new owners, but all to do with protecting their own interests. After all, that’s always what matters in football.
The Newcastle acquisition changed the fabric of English and world football. But whether you agree or not, let’s not pretend the others are morally much better.