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When winning at any cost is simply not worth it

St James' Park Newcastle [Wikipedia]
St James' Park Newcastle [Wikipedia]

There was a time when football was just a beautiful game with 22 players kicking a leather ball from one end of the pitch to another while supporters cheered on their team in the hope of victory. Now it's become a complex, multi-billion dollar affair mired in greed, politics and power.

Quite what Liverpool's late, great football manager Bill Shankly would have made of it is anyone's guess. As the 40th anniversary of his death approaches, what would he have made of the game's corruption by oil-rich sheikhs from the Middle East and wealthy Russian oligarchs?

Many of these overseas investors come from places where human rights are limited at best, and corruption is a way of life. They certainly weren't around when Shankly took Liverpool FC from the old Second Division as champions and then won three First Division titles, two FA Cups, four Charity Shields and the UEFA Cup. My most vivid memory of him was watching what turned out to be his last competitive game as manager when Liverpool trounced Newcastle United at Wembley in 1974.

Newcastle fans are often described as the most loyal in the Premier League, which didn't exist back then. They were not too crushed after the 3-0 drubbing by Shankly's men because at least we reached the final. While it is very easy to follow teams such as Manchester's United and City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, it takes a special sort of optimism and dedication to support the sleeping giant of St James' Park.

Today, though, we Newcastle fans face a moral dilemma, especially those who, like me, care about human rights and the current phenomenon of sports washing. I admit I have been conflicted over the proposed takeover of Newcastle by a Saudi-led consortium. I've argued with fellow fans and followers on social media who are desperate to see petro-dollars come pouring into the club in the belief that Manchester City-style success will follow.

"We can argue about human rights with the Saudis once the takeover goes through," one person representing the views of thousands of fans told me recently. "What's the harm? Look around the Premier League, there's money pouring in from all over the world from some really bad places."

He's right. In monetary terms, football offers great opportunities to those oil and gas rich countries in the Arab world looking to put their "soft power" to good use. To my eternal shame, I was almost carried away by the prospect of future success on the pitch as retail tycoon Mike Ashley tried to sell Newcastle United FC.

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However, the £300 million Saudi Arabian-led takeover has skidded to a halt several times and the lawyers are now involved. Ashley's arbitration case against the Premier League has been adjourned until early next year. Frustrated fans thought it was a done deal when the Saudi consortium, including financier Amanda Staveley and the billionaire Reuben Brothers, paid Ashley a £17m non-refundable deposit. All that remained was the Premier League's blessing.

That was in April last year; fifteen months later we are no further forward. The Premier League has not rejected the bid, but it has asked for proof of the separation between the principal investor, Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), and the Saudi state.

An arbitration hearing opened in London a few days ago but then both sides hesitated when asked to provide disclosure evidence. That resulted in the controversial adjournment which has left tens of thousands of Newcastle fans crying "foul". Many had headed to London to put pressure on the Premier League bosses who they blame for the hold up.

After yet another lacklustre season, I found myself alongside the majority of Newcastle fans willing the deal to go through despite concerns about Saudi Arabia's rotten human rights record. Not only was the North East's "sleeping giant" about to wake up, but the region was also promised hundreds of millions of pounds worth of regeneration and jobs by the PIF.

The Premier League's reluctance to approve the deal was possibly less to do with human rights concerns than protecting its own lucrative overseas broadcast deal with Qatar's beIN Sports. Allegations of Saudi broadcast piracy of the channel's Premier League output persist. Not even the recent thawing in Riyadh's relations with Doha facilitated the expected compromise.

Like many others, I was carried away by all of this and the potential benefits for my club and home region. However, on Tuesday night I received a reality check with a shocking telephone call telling me that one of my dearest friends and mentors has disappeared into Saudi Arabia's brutal prison system where torture is routine. I knew something was wrong when he failed to return my calls and feared he'd fallen victim to Covid-19. Despite my repeated requests and unanswered messages his family and work colleagues have remained silent for months, afraid to reveal his fate. Dr Ahmed Farid Moustapha is an architect and engineer of great renown with a thriving business in Madinah. He must be close on 80 years old; why would the Saudi regime fear such an elderly and well-respected man?

Going to St James' Park and to support Newcastle United knowing that it is being funded by a regime which brutalises, tortures and kills innocent people — fellow journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one such victim in 2018 — will be difficult. I will be going on the first day of the new season, though, to distribute leaflets and posters about Dr Moustapha, and to urge all Newcastle United fans and supporters, wherever they are, to check their conscience and ask themselves what they would do if they had received such a telephone call about someone very dear to them.

Do we really want to win no matter what the cost? Despite Bill Shankly's often misquoted quip about football being "much more" than a matter of life and death, it's really not worth it if it means turning a blind eye to deadly human rights abuses simply to get some silverware in the trophy cabinet.

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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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