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Football must not provide cover for human rights abuses and war crimes

St James' Park, home of Newcastle United FC [Flickr]
St James' Park, home of Newcastle United FC [Flickr]

Sportswashing and the billions of dollars it involves might mean very little to most Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as they go about their daily struggle to exist. It is, though, a term which is being used increasingly to describe the means by which brutal regimes use sport and sports events to whitewash their tarnished images on the global stage.

Three of the chief protagonists in this are Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates who, it seems, will stop at very little in order to achieve acceptance and the international credibility they crave. Aside from Formula 1, boxing and other sports, this has also dragged the beautiful game of football through the sewer of tyranny, oppression and corruption.

Israel, for example, promotes its national team overseas and declares football to be a unifying game, but it fails to tell fans that the apparatus of its military occupation — roadblocks, the Apartheid Wall and fixed checkpoints — is used to hamper the ability of Palestinian teams and players from even getting together to train, never mind play competitive matches. This has resulted in the cancellation of games, even cup finals. The Israeli occupation restricts the freedom of movement of all Palestinians, including athletes and footballers.

When international sportswear manufacturer Puma signed a four-year sponsorship deal with the Israel Football Association (IFA) the move shocked many pro-Palestinian football supporters who pointed out that the IFA also includes teams from Israel’s illegal settlements which are built on land stolen from Palestinian families in violation of international law. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) movement is currently running a campaign which points out that Puma’s sponsorship brings international legitimacy to the IFA and helps maintain its direct involvement with human rights violations and breaches of international law on and off the field of play.

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It is hard to imagine that when Puma signed the deal, the German company was not aware of the IFA’s complicity in clubs playing in the illegal settlements, which has been criticised repeatedly by UN advisers and human rights groups. Critics say that Puma is not only helping to normalise this situation but also making a profit out of illegal activity. By sponsoring Israeli national teams, Puma is helping Israel to use football to launder its international image overseas. Instead of seeing representatives of a colonial-settler state on the pitch, millions of soccer fans don’t see beyond the Puma logo and are blinded to Israel’s continued expansion of illegal settlements and theft of Palestinian land.

Posters on the London underground urges commuters to boycott sports brand Puma because of its sponsorship of the Israeli Football Association (IFA) which has teams in illegal settlements

Posters on the London underground urges commuters to boycott sports brand Puma because of its sponsorship of the Israeli Football Association (IFA) which has teams in illegal settlements, 25 October 2019

Puma insists that sport “has the power to transform and empower us” but that’s simply not true when many young Palestinians are unable to meet or train as a team, or even travel to away games. In other words, Puma is certainly not using its power to transform or empower football for the people of occupied Palestine. This point was made powerfully by Aya Khattab, a defender for the Palestinian National Women’s football team. “Pursuing a career as an athlete in Palestine is indeed a constant struggle, as the Israeli occupation puts barriers before us at every step,” explained Khattab. “That is why we expect the rest of the world, and especially sport institutions and companies, to be aware of our pain and to support us. That is why we reject attempts by sport brands and companies to whitewash Israel’s occupation.”

Closer to home — and here I declare a personal interest, being a lifelong supporter of English Premier League club Newcastle United FC — there has been a strong call for sport to put moral and ethical values ahead of profits. The plea was made by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was murdered in October 2018 at his country’s Consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is poised to finance 80 per cent of a £300 million takeover of Newcastle United, but as human rights organisations point out, this money comes from a regime with a terrible human rights record and Khashoggi’s blood on its hands. The finger of blame for his murder was pointed firmly at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard said there was credible evidence that the de facto ruler of the Kingdom and other high-level Saudi officials were individually liable for the killing. Bin Salman vigorously denies any involvement.

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Ms Cengiz addressed a message to the owners of Newcastle United urging them to think again before selling to the Saudis. “Money cannot buy everything in the world. So the message that will be given to people like the Crown Prince is extremely important. There should be no place in English football for those credibly accused of atrocities [in Yemen] and murder.”

Newcastle United’s principal shareholder is Mike Ashley, who bought the club in the north east of England in 2007; he put it up for sale in 2017. The Saudi government says that its deal has absolutely nothing to do with “sportswashing” and is just a way to get more of its citizens engaged in football.

One of the fiercest opponents of the Newcastle purchase is the Qatari chief executive of TV giant beIN Sport, Yousef Al-Obaidly. He has written to the major football clubs over concerns about the Premier League’s commercial rights. Saudi Arabia has been accused of broadcasting live Premier League matches illegally; beIN Sport has the broadcast rights.

The targeting of the Magpies — Newcastle United’s nickname — is seen by Riyadh’s critics as a soft power tactic to distract attention from the Kingdom’s ongoing human rights abuses and war crimes in the catastrophic war in Yemen. Tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians are thought to have been killed and another 14 million are on the brink of starvation as the Saudi-led coalition fights against Houthi rebels, creating the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis” in the process.

A protestor holds 'We didn't forget Jamal Khashoggi' during a protest in front of Saudi Consulate in New York to protest against Saudi Arabia's decision to execute three leading Saudi Arabian scholars including Salman al-Awdah after Ramadan, in New York, United States on 1 June 2019. [Atılgan Özdil - Anadolu Agency]

A protester holds a card reading ‘We didn’t forget Jamal Khashoggi’ during a protest in front of Saudi Consulate in New York, US York, on 1 June 2019 [Atılgan Özdil/Anadolu Agency]

The success of Qatar in landing the FIFA World Cup 2022 seems to have propelled Saudi Arabia towards an aggressive strategy to buy up Western sports clubs from America’s Major League Soccer (MLS), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA) and even the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), as well as clubs in Britain and Europe. MEMO revealed recently that Saudi billionaire Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal plans to buy France’s Olympique de Marseille Football Club in a $270 million deal.

Saudi Arabia’s sudden interest in sport goes back to November 2016 when Bin Salman ordered the Kingdom’s General Sports Authority – responsible for sports development in the country – to set up a development fund. Historically, though, Saudi Arabia has been opposed to the Western-influence of sports and entertainment. Since this dramatic policy shift, the country has hosted the Race of Champions (ROC) motorsport event; secured major wrestling shows; hosted boxing events headlined by stars like Amir Khan; hosted a PGA European Tour golf event; and even secured the rights for the December rematch between former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr amid more claims of sportswashing.

It is obvious that Saudi Arabia is desperate to rebrand itself following the Khashoggi murder. The Guardian reported last year about a series of meetings and business calls between Saudi officials and the leading commissioners and sports bodies in the United States.

The term sportswashing was first conceived in 2018 by Amnesty International over the UAE’s attempts to attach its name to football and all that the brand entails. “The UAE’s enormous investment in Manchester City is one of football’s most brazen attempts to ‘sportswash’ a country’s deeply tarnished image through the glamour of the game,” said Amnesty International’s Gulf researcher Devin Kenney. “As a growing number of Manchester City fans will be aware, the success of the club has involved a close relationship with a country that relies on exploited migrant labour and locks up peaceful critics and human rights defenders.”

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Perhaps the solution lies in Germany, where football clubs have to be majority-owned by fans. Known as the 50+1 rule, this was written into German league statutes in 1998 and stipulates that a club must hold a majority of its own voting rights in order to compete in the Bundesliga. Sweden operates a similar system.

If adopted in the UK, it would prevent the sort of takeovers by external investors which are arguably destroying the English Premier League. It would certainly bring an end to wealthy, rogue regimes from buying up sports clubs in an attempt to rebrand themselves. The truth is, though, that it doesn’t matter how much gloss is applied, regimes like those in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel cannot hide the reality of their brutality from the world.

I have watched Newcastle United for more than five decades now and would dearly love to see the club pick up a piece of silverware, but not at any price. If, and when (I’m an optimist), the Magpies win the Premier League, I don’t want it to happen because of blood money from a regime which thinks that it is acceptable to strangle a journalist to death and then dismember him with a chainsaw.

In a way, we should be thankful to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Puma and other sportswashers for making us realise that football is not simply about winning a game or a trophy at any price; it’s about teamwork, unity and an overwhelming desire to get the ball into the back of the net more often than your opponents, and to do it fairly. As far as Palestinian footballers in the occupied territories are concerned, just being able to train together would be a bonus.

It is time for football officials, executives, club owners, players and the numerous others feeding off the ordinary person’s love of the beautiful game to show some backbone and a conscience and clean up football once and for all. It must not be used to provide respectable cover for human rights abuses and war crimes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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