The PIF’s takeover of the Tyneside club’s just the latest evidence of the footballing world’s ability to turn a blind eye when it suits them, writes Laura Lawrence.
Sportswashing isn’t a new phenomenon in football. It’s been around for at least a century: from Mussolini hosting the 1934 World Cup, to the 1964 European Nations Cup in Franco’s Spain; from the 1978 World Cup being held in Argentina while it was still under military occupation, right up to next year’s World Cup in Qatar, where corruption and migrant deaths have done nothing to improve their reputation so far.
Saudi Arabia hasn’t hidden their attempts to attract sporting events and lucrative sponsorship through the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is the sovereign wealth fund of the Saudi state. In their Vision 2030 objectives, among the corporate buzzwords, it clearly identifies sport as a key industry to target. It wasn’t a surprise that a Premier League team would be one of those air-brushing targets. Some Premier League clubs are now complaining about the Saudi Arabian takeover of Newcastle United because, according to the BBC, they feel it will “reflect badly on the league”.
The necks of some of those clubs require a decent amount of Brasso when you think of Manchester City’s ownership and Chelsea’s links to the Russian state-owned oil company, Gazprom, using sportswashing to extend its gas network across Europe. Meanwhile, the use of Granit Xhaka’s sleeve is the perfect place to promote tourism in Rwanda, a country still reckoning with the aftermath of mass genocide.
Humans are paid-for commodities in football. A canvas to advertise. A chance for reflected glory if their company or country is linked to a euphoric moment of joy for thousands of supporters.
The narrative has been around the wealth of the PIF. The fetishism of ranking which club has the most cash is immoral in itself. It’s been a bleak week – but then it shouldn’t be surprising to a country that is a leading arms manufacturer with an unhealthy ability to look the other way at the atrocities being carried out in Yemen by the Saudis. Our country, like the Premier League, is more than happy to keep that gaze firmly on the wealth instead of the people or their actions.
It remains unclear how the state of Saudi Arabia isn’t connected to the PIF when the Chair is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The fit and proper ownership test appeared to hinge on whether TV piracy and illegal streams in Saudi Arabia would be dealt with prior to them being confirmed as majority owners.The overwhelming evidence of state-sponsored murder was apparently not as important as Manchester United v Burnley being shown without consent.
But, of course, Newcastle United are owned by the PIF and not the state of Saudi Arabia. Those blurry lines make you forget, as does an unhealthy injection of cash.
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