Media Transmissibility and Football: New Strategies for a New Era

Since its inception as a professional domain, football in Europe has run parallel to political and social currents, at different times and places taking a greater or lesser active role in developments. Whether or not the game should be involved with anything other than exercise and the odd bit of shouting really depends on who you ask. Some people might point out that it is, after all, just a game. They might even use words like “overpaid” or “prima donnas.” Others will disagree, and some will go as far as to say that it’s a matter of life and death. For Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly of course, it was “much, much more important than that.” A quick look at the history books and a glance at some maps will reveal that the truth is at least somewhere in the middle of all of this; clubs have always played a part in the wellbeing of their greater community, and with many stadiums still sitting bang in the middle of residential areas, it’s a role they still hold.

But what, I hear you cry, could a multi billion-pound industry have to do with the lives of everyday people? These guys in their Range Rovers and Ferraris wouldn’t know a 9 to 5 if it kicked a ball at them. It’s an open question whether or not footballers are really upper class, despite their wealth. They say it takes generations to truly move up the social ladder, and in the meantime, most players know where they came from. The perpetually high moral standards to which they are held seem at odds with the murky but more traditionally affluent worlds of finance and politics. Frequently, community work goes under the radar. As unfair as that seems, it is this straddling of the traditional class divide that makes footballers, at least in their best form, ideal contemporary role models. It’s also been convincingly put that football is one of the few truly meritocratic labour markets going. From Pele to Maradona to Wayne Rooney, no one in the hiring department cared one iota that these boys were from the very bottom of the barrel. Today, the rise of social media and the eternal appeal of the sporting success story has given athletes a voice, and at the same time enabled sports teams to seize opportunities for marketing and brand consolidation.

The landscape has shifted significantly over the decades. Up to and immediately after the war years, football was all some neighbourhoods had going for them. The game became more glamourous in the 60s, and in the 80s the strength of working-class unity began to ebb away with the rise of Thatcherite neoliberal economics. Clearly this violent economic period was when football hooliganism was at its peak. But the modern footballer deserves their own terminology; the neofootballer? The generation of player just gone was not a generally popular one, as they coincided with massive increases in revenue, the rise of television subscription services, and the notion that football was becoming progressively more elitist as all areas of the game came under market control. This was all further fueled by a tabloid press which was often out for blood, with scandal after scandal making Premier League footballers public enemy number one. But both at the point of the individual player, and on a more systemic level, things are again changing.

The intent to sow discord for profit still exists, but the red pages are losing their touch. An easy explanation is that they’re coming to terms with a shrinking audience. Declining sales in the newspaper industry are nothing new, with industry revenue in the UK falling from 4.45 billion GBP in 2005 to 2.8 billion GBP in 2020 (Newspaper industry in the United Kingdom – statistics & facts, 2021). The time old wisdom that the lie travels faster than the truth is as accurate today as it ever was, which is arguably why the tabloids are outperforming the broadsheets, but their now supplementary role to the internet and digital media is another modern truth. The implications for the control of narrative and power over public perception are vast.

The phenomena of “the collapse of media “gatekeeping”” is explored though the lens of economic news coverage in an article by Soroka, Daku, Hiaeshutter-Rice, Guggenheim, and Pasek (2018). Their primary claims that traditional media is selective in its choice of news headline with a preference for negative spin, and that a changing media landscape will provide opportunities for a different approach, have a clear correlation with football news coverage; “The news landscape is changing … and there are reasons to think these changes alter the nature of the economic news that is distributed and consumed … What we learn about the economy from social media may be fundamentally different from what we learn about the economy from traditional news sources alone. We suspect that the same is true for a much broader body of news content.” (Soroka et al, 2018).

Sound theories are supported by the evidence, and the changes in the type of news being distributed, as well as the effects of those changes, can be seen in many places. Let’s start with the biggest actors in the football industry; the clubs. For their part, football clubs understand the connotations of positive and negative press, and have in recent years become all the more savvy in their attempts to take control of the narrative. There is now not a professional club around without a media and communications team aiming to deliver optimised and controlled public relations (Price, Farrington, & Hall, 2013). Interviews, press releases, daily communications and headline stories are now all conducted at the club’s behest. The direct and instant nature of social media allows for the easy coordination of a particular message, or agenda, with players too being schooled in the practice and becoming vastly more media savvy than years past. Access for journalists depends on cooperation with new media strategies (Price, Farrington, & Hall, 2013), as sensationalism, or “click bait” as we’d now say, becomes less tolerated within the sports news media industry.

As well as a cultural shift borne out of a reaction against negative press, there are also economic processes acting as a driving force behind the news media revolution. Communications and PR practices have become rooted in analytics, and the science is conclusive; social media metrics act as tools for the accumulation of intellectual capital (Lardo, Dumay, Trequattrini & Russo, 2017). For potential new investors, as well as existing stakeholders, a strong public image is gold dust, and the marketing opportunities afforded by social media make an efficient online presence paramount. In addition, the two-way communication made possible by social media poses a risk of involuntary exposure, or “intellectual capital involuntary disclosure” (Lardo, Dumay, Trequattrini & Russo, 2017), further necessitating the need for controlled and measured communication. 

So where does this leave the players, who begin to look more and more like pawns on a chessboard? The modern player is under increased scrutiny for their on-field performance, has more wealth and so a far greater stick to be beaten with, and exists at a time when public discourse is both more accessible and more uncertain. The social issues witnessed today are not new, but are amplified in online areas, exemplified by online “white flight” and the racial differences between certain online spaces (Kilvington & Price, 2017). 2014-15 saw 39,000 discriminatory posts directed at Premier League players, and as you could be forgiven for assuming more recent numbers are at least as high, the question remains of “how to protect and police [players] in their use of social media” (Kilvington & Price, 2017). The possibility of using an individual platform to elevate certain issues and causes exists alongside the obsession of clubs with image and marketability. Alongside pressure from clubs, it’s also easy to see how taking a detached, coordinated-from-above approach to social media could be more appealing and far less unsavoury for many players. The reality is that in having an individual platform, footballers are not alone, and yet access to the internet was not the great equaliser we were promised. Rather, it was the slippage of the mask where we came to realise just how polarised society really was, is, and will perhaps remain for some time. All that this means is that there is still work required to level the playing field, and although it can look ugly for now, the recent elevation of historically marginalised social groups is a progression. Although far from a panacea, the role of social media has been important in its amplification of much needed dialogues and social causes. That footballers are able to represent some of these causes on the one hand, and the interests of corporate elites on the other, is a paradox perhaps only the great Bill Shankly himself would have seen coming.

Works Cited

Watson, A. (2021, Nov 9). Newspaper industry in the United Kingdom – statistics & facts. Statista.

Soroka, S., Daku, M., Hiaeshutter-Rice, D., Guggenheim, L., & Pasek, J. (2018). Negativity and positivity biases in economic news coverage: Traditional versus social media. Communication Research45(7), 1078–1098.

Price, J., Farrington, N., & Hall, L. (2013). Changing the game? The impact of Twitter on relationships between football clubs, supporters and the sports media. Soccer & Society14(4), 446–461.

Lardo, A., Dumay, J., Trequattrini, R., & Russo, G. (2017). Social media networks as drivers for intellectual capital disclosure. Journal of Intellectual Capital, 18(1), 63-80.

Kilvington, D., & Price, J. (2019). Tackling Social Media Abuse? Critically Assessing English Football’s Response to Online Racism. Communication & Sport, 7(1), 64–79.

Clubs as Community

Although no longer at the helm at Molineux, Nuno’s actions have given him a permanent place in the hearts of the greater Wolverhampton community

The duty of any club, of any variety, should first and foremost be to its community. That’s sort of the point, and it applies just the same to the football world. Of course it’s a fantasy to expect to see eleven of your peers, or even countrymen, kicking the ball around in your clubs colours every weekend; the game, like most other walks of life, is now international. And a good thing too. If it weren’t, teams in England would still be playing the good old boot it and run whilst South America and continental Europe perfected their flair game. But even with such a diversified playing and coaching staff, it all eventually comes back to the community. It’s true that some of those involved on the playing side may struggle with this idea, and the concept of mercenaries is a real one, but the influence of the fans still exists. A manager’s ability to buy into the mood of a fanbase can often be the difference between them getting the benefit of the doubt and, well, just doubt. A player who out runs, out tackles and out sweats his teammates will be loved as much as any prolific goal scorer. When a home grown talent does manage to make the grade, they invariably feel the love more than any other.

Park Ji-sung was adored by United fans for his effort and determination. His name is still rings out at Old Trafford over a decade after his departure

But a football club’s role of community representation doesn’t just extend to 90 minutes on the pitch. For many towns and cities, a local club will provide entertainment, jobs, local pride, economic stimulation, community programmes, charity and community donations, support for social causes, and as a new addition, emergency response initiatives. In regions with higher levels of economic disparity, community food banks and social programmes come to rely on the support of local clubs, while visits to local hospitals and schools are seen as part and parcel of being a top level professional footballer. Collective agreements are also on the rise. The Premier League has been able to use its vast appeal to grow the influential PL Kicks programme, evolving from a four club pilot project in 2006 to now include 90 clubs from across the professional leagues, with a projection of over 175,000 lower income young people being reached between 2019-2022. The Professional Footballer’s Association, the union for English based professional footballers, also takes an active role in charity and community support. As well as giving direct support to organisations outside of the realm of football, the PFA has a tradition of aiding those players who choose to take things a step further than community outreach and donation.

The neccessity of the role of football clubs in Britain provides its own indictment of the state of society

The football organisations, as well as clubs, are aware of their duty to use their vast platform in a positive way. As an industry, and at the level of the individual player, the sport is a regular recipient of derision and and contempt from the outside. The runaway finances at the top level are undeniably problematic, while the behaviour of a minority of supporters is at times unfortunate. But with private investment coming thick and fast, not to mention the vast revenues generated by an invested public both domestic and overseas, is it really prudent to attack players for being paid market value? As for supporter behaviour, we can only hope that as our social demographics continue to evolve, prevailing attitudes do the same . Why a vocal minority of racists and misogynists involve themselves with the game is surely more to do with sheer volume of support than anything about football itself. Nothing about the game is perfect, and as with any industry there are good and bad actors. A compelling argument for why footballers in particular are such an easy target in England has to do with the permeations of class status, and an uneasy understanding of who gets what and why. This confused and suspicious environment is what allows tabloid papers like The Sun to publish their now infamous “Obscene Raheem” article detailing a house purchase by Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, whilst having little to say on former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s inclusion in the pandora paper leak, also due to a house purchase. As far as community goes, unpaid taxes seems a bit on the antisocial side.

The likes of Raheem Sterling provide a useful outlet for the sensationalist press

Still, in all its unperfected glory, football plays a role. One impressively researched article, drawing on statistics, ranks English football’s 20 most generous clubs between April 2018-19, and places their combined primary contributions (excluding secondary and affiliate charities) at £65,369,893. This spirit extends to the individual too. When the economic impacts of Covid-19 began to take their toll, the already low income city of Wolverhampton and its surrounding areas was hit hard. In 2020, players from Wolverhampton Wanderers made contributions to local hospitals, and in January 2021, manager at the time Nuno Espirito Santo put his hand in his pocket and donated £250,000 to local initiative Feed Our Pack. His actions have given a place in the hearts and community of the people of Wolverhampton, even after he has left the club. Other areas across the country were hit just the same, with similar local acts from clubs and players. However, it really is essential to remember that many of these communities were virtually on their knees long before any pandemic was around to point the finger to. The years prior to the pandemic saw the drastic remodeling of the welfare system, culminating in smaller benefit payments, longer wait times, greater sanctions, and reduced tax credits. Not so astonishingly, the use of food banks skyrocketed; one in 50 UK households needing the service in 2018-19. A similar lack of regard for the general populace is to be clearly seen in brutal cuts to the NHS in the preceding years. When an independent health foundation reveals that “the UK spends about half the share of GDP on capital investment in the health service compared to similar countries,” its fair to get the impression that we never had a chance once Covid hit. It’s facts such as these which make the comments from health secretary Matt Hancock about the need for footballers to play their part look desperate at best. But play their part they did, with the support from Nuno Santo for the Feed Our Pack initiative, though particularly generous, being part of a trend across the country. When they weren’t helping to feed the nations poor, Premier League footballers were helping to keep a creaking national health service afloat, via the #PlayersTogether NHS fund. Sticking with individuals filling in for broader society, its impossible to look past the efforts of Marcus Rashford correction Marcus Rashford, MBE. His foray into the world of policy influence began in June 2020, when he expressed concern on twitter at the lack of government interest in extending the free school meal programme into the summer months, despite widespread concerns due to covid-19 related economic downturn. Over a two day back and forth and an open letter to government, his influence and determination were enough to force a U-turn, guaranteeing £15 a week beyond the school term for Britain’s most in need. Following on from this victory, Rashford formed a taskforce with leading charities and food providers, and a parliamentary petition #endchildfoodpoverty, with two out of three of the requests since being realised. The real term improvements of monetary value and reach of government food programmes is remarkable, and goes to show just how far a powerful, willing voice can go. At 24 years old, the Manchester United forward is clearly destined for big things on and off the pitch (hopefully with a few Premier League titles thrown in). I’m just glad he’s on our side.

Goals on the pitch, goals against the goverment for Marcus Rashford

Another arena in which football’s reach is significant is that of social justice. The three great blights on modern civil society, racism, sexism, and homophobia, naturally rear their heads in the world’s most followed sport. Much is being done on each front, though each issue currently lends itself to different levels of direct action. The women’s game, at long last, is well and truly in development. After being stifled for decades by outdated notions of gender roles, in 1993 the FA finally acted to incorporate women’s football into its fold. The game was no longer voluntary, and its evolution toward a formal pyramid, with fully professionalised top divisions, was possible. Progression since 1993 was gradual, but in recent years levels of investment and exposure have reached far more acceptable levels. The increase year on year of traditional clubs represented by women’s sides depicts a bright future for the game. LGBT+ inclusion in sport is perhaps the most sensitive issue currently under observation. The only way to achieve progression is through visibility and acceptance, which is precisely the aim of the Rainbow Laces campaign, a collaboration between LGBT+ charity Stonewall and the Premier League. Stonewall’s own research found that 65% of the British public have some concerns about anti LGBT+ abuse at live sporting events. The campaign’s endorsement by Liverpool captain Jordon Henderson will do it no harm at all. Racism in football is of course nothing new. But the overt abuse hurled at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka in the aftermath of England’s Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy was of the type that we like to pretend is no longer present in our game, indeed our society. How that argument even stacks up, as though different tiers of bigotry are somehow palatable, is another question. “We don’t throw bananas anymore, it was only online” seems about the strongest and equally stupidest argument. The fact that Raheem Sterling of Man City was in fact physically confronted in a racially aggravated attack in 2017 makes you wonder if Rashford, Sancho and Saka got off lightly. We have undoubtedly come a long way since the 70s and 80s, when brilliant players like Cyrille Regis and John Barnes took scathing abuse and bullets in the mail in their stride. But it remains the case that in the summer 2021, the entire England football camp at the European Championship made a collective decision to come together, out of respect for members of their community, to unite around the symbolic gesture of taking a knee in objection to oppression and discrimination. The response of a vocal minority of supporters to take it upon themselves to boo their team, though hugely disappointing, still wasn’t a shock to many. The biggest surprise of the whole affair was the response of senior members of government. Much had already been made of the taking of the knee over the previous football season. Dominic Raab, at the time the foreign secretary, was either confused or trying to be coy in his suggestion that the gesture was just an imitation of tv show Game of Thrones. The home secretary, ever diplomatic, made the correct if misguided assertion that it was the right of fans to boo what she labeled “gesture politics.” Boris Johnson’s refusal to condemn the booing left himself, as well as Patel and others, open to understandable charges of hypocrisy after their measured responses to the inevitable abuse aimed at Rashford and co. England centre back Tyrone Mings said what we were all thinking. Next, he ought to ask why she is so afraid of symbolic gestures. What is the donning of the poppy every November, if not a gesture? And one which, if publicly rejected, comes with fairly overt charges of disrespect and lack of patriotism. Clearly, some gestures are more equal than others.

England manager Gareth Southgate and his team will be remembered on the right side of history, and not just for their sporting achievements

The Opium of the Masses?

The FA Cup trophy at Wembley, the spiritual home of English football

What is it about football in particular that makes it so culturally charged? Why does this sport more than any other attract the masses, in most countries around the world, every weekend come match day? The presence of over 40,000 registered football clubs in England puts a fine point on the importance of the game in that country. It makes no sense for people to travel the length of breadth of the windswept British Isles (they come from Scotland and Northern Ireland too), to see their team go down 1-0 in the 93rd minute, and then haul themselves back in time for work in the morning. But plenty do it.

Drawing on personal anecdote, that kind of dogmatic, slightly deranged following was what was most missing from a B.C Lions vs Saskatchewan Roughriders fixture at B.C Place in 2017. Of course, the geography is incomparable, but it would’ve still been nice to see just a handful of hardcore Saskatchewaners, caught up in the moment, shirtless in the autumn chill, swearing hands down that their home province would win against B.C in a fight, any day. Even on the home front, the atmosphere was a bit deflating. B.C Place has a capacity of 54,500, but for years now average attendances for B.C Lion’s games have been significantly lower than that. In 2012, the Lions’ average attendance was 30,366, in a city with a population of 603,502 (2011 census, Wikipedia), going up to 2,463,431 (2016 census, Wikipedia) across the Greater Vancouver area. At the start of the 2013-14 season Wolverhampton Wanderers were getting used to life in the third tier of English football, having suffered successive relegations in the previous two seasons. Despite the anger and frustration amongst the fanbase (I was there for a lot of Wolves’ home games in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, it wasn’t great), in a city with a population of 249,470 (2011 census, Wikipedia) they were still pulling in around 20,000 for most home games.

Netflix limited series The English Game is a good starting point for understanding the cultural context of football

The cultural difference between Wolverhampton Wanderers and B.C Lions, and generally football clubs compared to other sports teams, tends to be historical. The origins of professional football are to be found in the early days of the FA Cup, the world’s first formal nationwide competition, which played its first round of fixtures on 11 November 1871. After a decade of dominance by the London centric, elite public school based teams who helped to create the competition (early winners included Oxford University and Old Etonians, as well as the Royal Engineers), the rapid growth of the game in the industrial heartlands, particularly Lancashire and the Midlands, quickly transformed the sport from an amateur pastime of the upper classes to a formative aspect of the identity of working people. Sport had of course long been a luxury reserved for the ruling classes, with games like rugby and cricket in England being thought of as the perfect expressions of gentlemanly ideals and civility. Traditionally, it had been high society alone who could afford the time and money needed for such pursuits, but by 1883, the industrial northern town of Blackburn had produced a winning FA Cup team, and football had been well and truly adopted by the working class. In 1885 professionalism was legalised, and in 1888 the Football League was formed; of its twelve founding members, 5 were born out of mil towns. The game today couldn’t be further from those humble beginnings, with the Premier League lightyears ahead of its subsidiary divisions further down the English football pyramid. A handful of teams operating at the top of that pyramid now function on budgets larger than the GDP of small nations. But the league system survives, with all its cultural implications and regional rivalries, in spite of those imbalances. Its strength lies in its diversity, and the strength of every single club in the pyramid rests with its community. The history of the FA Cup is scattered with David vs Goliath moments of much smaller clubs upsetting the odds; miniature myths which belong to the collective football community and yet have in a way sustained individual clubs for decades. Not everyone can operate at the upper echelons of society, but we can all leave a mark.

Wigan Athletic celebrate defeating the newly minted Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup final. The last great cup based giant killing?

Manchester United’s history is infused with mythical figures. The most scholarly fan will still celebrate the signing of Billy Meredith, who helped deliver the club’s first Football League title in 1907/08. Sir Matt Busby’s successes, first with his fabled title winning “Busby Babes,” and then his rebuild following the tragic loss of life of much of his playing squad in the Munich Air Disaster, is the stuff of legend. To come back from the brink, and then build the first English side to win the European Cup in 1968, immortalised his name forever along with the stars of that team, Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best and Dennis Law. Sir Alex Ferguson is a god to all on the red side of Manchester, and many of the players he brought through at Old Trafford will never be forgotten, including a certain David Beckham. The brilliant Eric Cantona had the one liners to match his mystique on the pitch. A working man’s club from the outset, Manchester United came into being in 1878, and initially went by the name of Newton Heath LYR (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway). Like any good story, the history of United seems to be wrapped up in fate. The same railway line that produced Newton Heath formed one other club, Horwich RMI, whose future in the non professional leagues could easily have been shared by United. In these days of sportswashing and all round gentrification of the people’s game, history and pride of place within the sport is still everything to football fans. And it still means something to say that we came first (I’m looking at you, Manchester City).

A big part of being a football fan is accepting your lot, praying for better days and enjoying the good times when they come. Some of us are luckier than others. My second team (due to family ties) Wolverhampton Wanderers can claim to be one of the twelve founding members of the Football League, enjoyed a couple of early FA Cup triumphs, conquered the heights of English football in the 1950s, threatened to disappear into obscurity in the mid 80s and again in the 2010s, and are currently enjoying a renaissance (with the help of some not insignificant Chinese investment) with one of the most exciting squads in English football. Its a mixed bag, and the fans want more, but its an undeniably proud history. Each and every club can argue theirs in their own way.

The Old Gold: Molineux Stadium exists physically and figuratively at the heart of the city of Wolverhampton

It is this history which keeps clubs rooted in their community, and which is just as important as any events on the field. Investors from abroad have for some time now attempted to revamp, or in their eyes innovate, an industry far more steeped in culture and tradition than perhaps they first realised. Given the widespread discontent surrounding the recurring concept of a 39th fixture played overseas, adopting the North American practice of moving “franchises” around the country as and when deemed financially necessary would likely push the doomsday clock forward at least a couple of notches. It’s hard to forget the furor that descended upon Cardiff City when the club’s new Malaysian owner Vincent Tan proposed highly controversial changes to the teams shirt colour and crest, with the idea to make Cardiff more attractive to an Asian market. In June 2012 the changes went ahead, and after an uneasy two and a half years, on 9 January 2015 Tan reversed his decision in the name of “togetherness, unity and happiness.” We all love a happy ending.

The most egregious assault yet on the footballing institution is surely the attempt in April 2021 by executives of Europe’s leading clubs to form the breakaway European Super League. It’s hard to say whether the closed shop, oligarchic, tv revenue based driving force behind the proposal, or that the bombshell was dropped on an unsuspecting public still gripped in the midst of varying degrees of covid-19 trauma, was the most cynical aspect of the affair. At the time supporters were still not permitted to attend live matches, and it is incomprehensible to believe that the Super League’s instigators would have felt empowered to act as they did if this weren’t the case. Fortunately, the combined efforts of football’s various governing bodies, as well as leading football commentators, players and coaches past and present, supporters, and even politicians put an end to the League before it had so much as blinked. This united front taken against the ESL, though filled with caveats, was a thing to behold. As a society still coming to terms with post Brexit realities (for which it’s worth remembering half the voting public did not sign up), having already seen communities decimated for over a decade by harsh austerity measures, as well as the recent push via the BLM movement for a wider appreciation of race relations, the UK knows a thing or two about polarisation. The pandemic prompted talk, not just in the UK, of opportunities to reshape entire sectors of economic and social activity. This has of course not happened, and it remains to be seen how much material effect the push to reshape the structure of elite level football will have. Majority fan ownership of clubs, via the German 50 plus one model, and the presence of supporter’s trusts in club boardrooms, both seem possible to achieve. The Liverpool supporter’s union Spirit Of Shankly are showing the way how by seeking cooperation with supporters trusts from other clubs, as well as the Football Supporters Association. Manchester United Supporters Trust has involved itself with government petitions. Any potential progress will not be straightforward, and the idea of capitalism eating itself is nothing new, but when greed pushes generally unassuming people toward action, new possibilities are sometimes given the light of day.

Public enemy #1: will Florentino Pérez and his co-conspiritors eventually achieve their aims?

Mo Money Mo Problems

Arguments about economic theory and ethical responsibility aren’t quite at the head of the agenda for the majority of sports fans. In football, we prefer our arguments to be about offside decisions, yellow cards, or who had the best attendance in a cup replay second leg back in 1978. For the match going fan in particular, any radical departure from the basics of the game tends to be viewed with suspicion. Whether it’s corporate elites chasing a bottom line, or powerful individuals seeking to expand personal influence, or else overseas investors motivated by such classic pursuits as growth and portfolio diversification, the worlds of big business and big politics are as alien as they are distasteful for anyone concerned purely with the aesthetics of the sport. But what happens when those worlds do impose themselves on that of the “beautiful game?”

What fans want most is of course success. When results are steady, or the promise of new investment is on the table, the majority of supporters are happy enough to put ethical concerns to the side and celebrate what is happening on the pitch. The reigning champions of European football’s elite competition, Chelsea, have won an impressive 18 major titles since their purchase by Roman Abramovich in 2003, more than any other club in that period. It’s a rare day when you’ll hear a Chelsea supporter bemoaning the fire sale of old Soviet state assets which enabled Abramovich to become a financial juggernaut. Manchester City supporters are similarly content with an ownership model based directly on the state resource based personal fortune of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, via the Abu Dhabi United Group, which owns 78% of City Football Group. In 2008, Abu Dhabi United Group completed a dramatic takeover, saving City from impending financial oblivion when it became increasingly clear that previous owner Thaksin Shinawatra would be unable to sustain the club due to having his assets frozen at home in Thailand on charges of corruption. The money already invested on players by Shinawatra nonetheless made City an attractive proposition, and Sheikh Mansour was happy to take the reigns. Fast forward 13 years and the club are a powerhouse, investment in the Premier League at large has reached astronomical levels, and City Football Group shows no signs of slowing down investment in multiple leagues around the world. The purchase price of Manchester City in 2008 was £210 million, and the club has spent comfortably over £1 billion on playing staff alone since then. An immaculate new stadium, first class training and youth development facilities, and focussed youth and women’s football investment all add up to the slickest operational machine in world football. It’s hard to say what this all adds up to in the billions. Fortunately, monetary profit isn’t the motivation for the City Football Group. Like it’s neighbours in the Persian Gulf and fellow emirates, Abu Dhabi has some practices and traditions that are highly controversial by western standards. The rights of women, LGBTQ persons and migrant workers are far from stable, and the use of various forms of corporal punishment, sometimes for minimal offences, is an uneasy reality. As an emergent international power, the United Arab Emirates is well aware of the necessity and benefit of greater global integration, whilst recognising the widespread objection to these human rights concerns. Nothing settles the jitters more than an open cheque book though. Investing enough into any industry will always smooth over the bumps, and sportswashing on the biggest stage on the planet just might be a more impressive tactic than the scintillating style of football City head coach Pep Guardiola has his team playing.

Deputy UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the World Economic Forum

On other occasions, supporters’ groups will in fact push back against the money men, even if it means abandoning the club they love. When Manchester United were acquired in 2005 under controversial circumstances by American businessman Malcolm Glazer, supporters formed a breakaway club, F.C. United of Manchester. That these supporters would turn their backs on one of the most celebrated teams in world sport, and that F.C. United are currently thriving on the periphery of the professional leagues, is testament to both the strength of anti commercial sentiment, and the organisational capacity of the supporters involved. It’s fair to add that the leveraged takeover of Manchester United by Malcolm Glazer stood to place the club into debt for the first time since 1931, whilst on the other hand Abramovich and bin Zayed were clearly offering access to unfathomable streams of hard cash, giving new definition to the term “sugar daddy.” The Glazer approach to purchasing and then running Manchester United was less about reputation laundering than simple speculation and accumulation. Drawing on his experience as owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL, where sport follows a drastically different operational model, and indeed fulfills a different purpose to that of traditional club based English football, he saw a clear commercial opportunity in a comparably untapped market. It’s hard to argue against the club’s success as a “brand” over the past decade and a half, but to be honest, some more joy on the field to match the successful quarterly financial readings wouldn’t go amiss.

The two typical driving factors for investment, private profiteering and reputation laundering through sportswashing, both have distinct but significant ethical concerns to consider. As well as this, the dual question of financial common sense and fair competition is almost a comical one when cash injections can deliver virtually instant success to previously humble clubs. The subsequent assault on any real notion of meritocracy, and wild distortion of the transfer market as player fees and wages spiral, leaves a sour taste for the clubs and fan bases playing catchup. Football has clearly become a casino, literally a plaything for the world’s wealthiest operators. The origin of much of the money in the game is also becoming harder to justify. It is under this cloud of guilt, excitement, and general mixed emotion that the recent takeover of Newcastle United, undoubtably one of the biggest sporting institutions in the North East of England, has rocked both fans of the club and the global football community. The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, serving the interests of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, has made Newcastle United the wealthiest entity in the history of sport, probably even the history of modern industry. The frequent human rights abuses and extrajudicial nature of Saudi diplomacy are well documented. However, there is no bigger billboard than elite level European football, and just as the City Football Group has poured billions into state-of-the-art facilities and public spectacle, bin Salman now has centre stage for his charm offensive. Yes, the list of state crimes and human rights concerns may be larger in Saudi Arabia than in the U.A.E, but more importantly, so is the cheque book. They may well not like it, but with a healthy combination of devotion to their club, years of frustrating mismanagement, and a hunger for success inherent to a club of the size and history of Newcastle, we can still expect the fan base to enjoy the ride as much as MBS.

How long before Newcastle’s new found riches bring success to Saint James’ Park?