Contrasting positions by footballers and supporters
Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, there have been several photos in the sports pages of groups of kneeling footballers forming either circles (Liverpool) or an H (Chelsea) in support of black rights in the USA. They are expressing their outrage at the killing of a black American by allegedly over aggressive policing and restraint, which led to Floyd’s death, the latest in a series of black people who have died at the hands of the police.
At the same time – as we have written before – the Premier League is currently debating the sale of Newcastle United Football Club to a consortium funded by Saudi interests to the tune of £300 million. The litany of human rights abuses in that country are many: torture is common; women’s rights are highly restricted; the death penalty is frequently used, often in public and by beheading, and amputation is practised as a punishment for certain crimes. There is no free speech and religious persecution is carried out. Whatever one may think of heavy-handed policing in the USA and the problems over race in that country, it comes no way near the grim state of affairs in Saudi Arabia. In addition to the human rights abuses there is the war being waged by Saudi in Yemen which is causing immense misery and suffering.
Despite this, supporters of NUFC are overwhelmingly in favour of the transaction taking place. A poll showed 97% in favour of the sale. This partly because the current owner – Mike Ashley – has failed to adequately invest in the club and the supporters want the club to do better. The Premier League is currently debating the sale of the club and the sole consideration, as far as their statements are concerned, is whether broadcasting rights have been infringed:
Qatar broadcaster beIN Sports has also accused the Saudi Arabian government of facilitating the piracy of Premier League football rights in the Middle East through broadcaster beoutQ, although there is a long-running diplomatic row between the two countries.
Saudi broadcaster Arabsat has always denied that beoutQ uses its frequencies to broadcast illegally and has accused beIN of being behind “defamation attempts and misleading campaigns”. Source: BBC
Newcastle fans bristle at the suggestion that they should not accept such tainted money. They argue that the issues has only achieved this degree of salience because football is in the public eye. They point to the sale of arms by the UK and USA governments with little concern for the use they are put or the misery and destruction caused. They also point to other investments by the Saudi regime in the UK – Uber taxis, or the Independent newspaper – which haven’t received similar negative publicity.
When the widow of Adnam Kashoggi, who was murdered by the regime in Turkey, asked Newcastle to reflect on the funding and not to take it, she was rewarded with some unpleasant trolling on Twitter.
But the contrast is quite stark. On the one hand an outpouring of sympathy and support for the death of an innocent man in the USA, and on the other, avid support for a takeover by a terrible regime committing far worse acts on its citizens who seek to purchase a football club as part of its sports wash programme. Quite why there should be this disparity of interest is hard to say. Possibly sharing the same language so that information from America flows around the world quickly. The presence of a free press there will be another factor.
If we in the UK – including football fans – could see what is going on in Saudi, if the women were allowed to speak and mobile phone footage of public executions widely circulated, then it is to be hoped their views might be different.
Jonathan Lieu, writing in the New Statesman (22 – 28 May 2020) argues that fans have craved the departure of Mike Ashley and not prepared to get too squeamish about who might replace him. He says the dissatisfaction with Ashley is not to do with his zero-hours contracts or compromised labour rights, but more to do with his parsimony and failure to splash out some of his wealth on the club. He argues that the fan’s behaviour and attitudes to the deal –
… is an admission of where the fans sit in the order of things. Shorn of any real influence, deprived of any meaningful stake in their club, shut out of their stadiums for the foreseeable future, perhaps it is no wonder that some many have simply plumped for the path of least resistance and maximum gratification. New Statesman p40
This may be so. But just as important is the power of money in this sport. Success – other than a fleeting cup run – is almost entirely dependant on huge investment to enable the purchase of top players. Since investment in football is a risky venture from a financial point of view, the big money comes from people with big egos to support or who are using the sport to launder a reputation. The desire for success and the need for big money feed on themselves. Any moral qualms are trampled under foot. In that, the supporters share with the UK government – whose desire for money from weapons sales – lack any consideration for human rights or the plight of those in Yemen.
Sources: BBC; Premier League; Guardian; New Statesman; aljazeera