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.
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.