Sebastian Waizenegger, '22
On October 7th, 2021, it was confirmed--the rumor that had been bubbling under the surface for Newcastle United fans for years, tugging at the moral heartstrings of every Geordie in northern England: The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), had completed the financial takeover of Newcastle, one of Britain’s most historic soccer clubs. While the Fund is technically “separate” from the Middle Eastern state, thus passing the regulations for ownership, it is still Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. The takeover stirred a myriad of questions about the future of the sport in addition to criticisms regarding human rights, which follow the Saudi government like a foul stench. One thing is for sure though: it will be fascinating to see how this historic takeover will change the landscape of European football as we know it.
Newcastle United, nicknamed the Magpies, who wear the iconic black-and-white-striped jerseys, will be forever part of English soccer lore. In their history, they have had legendary moments--such as their third-place finish in the Premier League’s second official season in 1993-94--and legendary players, like the ruthless finisher and Premier League’s all-time record goalscorer, Alan Shearer. However, Newcastle has spent the last fifteen years languishing in the bottom half of the Premier League table, or even being relegated to the second-tier, the Championship.
For context, Newcastle’s stadium, St. James’ Park, is the seventh-biggest in the Premier League--a league of twenty teams--with a maximum capacity of over 52,000, which is sold out nearly every matchday. Yet since the previous owner, Mike Ashley (CEO of the UK-based department store chain Sports Direct), took over in 2006, the net player spend has been the eighth-worst, and the capital expenditure on infrastructure (i.e. stadium, training ground) dead last. Ashley’s unwillingness to invest in the club in any meaningful way put him in bad stead with fans, who were desperate to see their club return to the successful and exciting times of old.
In came the Saudi-led consortium. Willing spenders, promising a budget of over 1 billion dollars to spend not only on future big-name player transfers, but also on stadium repair and a new training ground. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Part of the dilemma surrounding the Saudi ownership, who purchased Newcastle for nearly 400 million dollars, is the question of human rights, considering their numerous past violations. The chairman of the PIF, Mohammed Bin Salman, is believed to be directly connected to several inhumane actions, including the high-profile murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Let me say it again. A man known to have orchestrated multiple killings is making crucial decisions at a global brand representing the most popular soccer league in the world. A quick scan of the dozen “controversies” listed on his Wikipedia page will tell you all you need to know about the guy entrusted to run this consortium.
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, condemned the Saudi takeover.
“This is against the backdrop of a strategy by Saudi Arabia to use sports teams, athletes and major sporting events in the country to distract from its national human rights crises,” she says. “Given the Saudi Arabian government’s poor human rights record, this is a wake-up call to fans, broadcasters and players that sports should not be a tool for erasing human rights abuse.”
While human rights groups are critical, others are not. The aforementioned Newcastle-born Alan Shearer tweeted out, “Yesssssssss. We can dare to hope again.” From the nine s’s, you can get a good indication of his excitement levels.
In the end, it falls on the laps of the Premier League and the regulation board who approved the takeover, to answer to their decision. The further injection of money into the Premier League through this transaction, which promises future lucrative partnerships with the Middle East, ultimately confirms that they turned a blind eye to the untenable acts of those closely involved with the PIF.
What does the future hold for Newcastle? Only time will tell. Off the field, the other nineteen Premier League clubs have condemned the takeover in a joint statement. On the field, until yesterday Newcastle sat bottom of the Premier League table, without a win in fourteen games. While major investment is likely to begin in January when the transfer window to purchase reinforcements opens, it remains to be seen whether or not the deal can save their season. Long term, it raises concerns for the rest of the league, and European soccer in general.
I’ll leave you with this: What does it say about the sporting world when a club must be owned by a sovereign nation to achieve success?
Cover Image: Premier League