Declan Da Barp
Once a proud club, that finished runners-up in the early years of the Premier League, Newcastle United has been in the doldrums of English football. Much like the surrounding area, the football club was subject to a lack of investment that left it floundering. That was until Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the Public Investment Fund purchased the club for £300 Million.
In an instance, the Magpies became the wealthiest club in world football. This sent the people of Newcastle pilgriming to St. James’ Park, some with tablecloths on their heads and Saudi Arabian flags, to celebrate what they see as the revival of their club.
This was the exact reaction that bin Salman was hoping to illicit. It is one of a growing number of examples within the English Game of sportswashing.
The global reach and appeal of the Premier League have attracted the attention of nefarious actors who aim to purify their image through the game. It is time that real regulations are put into place that prevents the financial doping of clubs for authoritarian gains.
Sportswashing works and that is what is so dangerous.
Sportswashing is rather hard to define but in its simplest terms, it is the attempt by an individual, corporation, or state to cleanse its global image through sport. Or to borrow a phrase from Nicholas McGeehan, co-director of Fair\Square an organization that researches human rights abuse, and promotes accountability and the rule of law,
“Sportswashing launders the reputations of thugs and despots, but it also diminishes our democratic institutions.”
The term has a long history dating back to the fascist dictators of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
In the Premier League itself, the practice dates to as early as 2003 when Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea. While his reasons remain opaque, the Oligarch transformed a floundering Chelsea into one of the most powerful teams in the sport. His liberal attitude to spending, including two billion Pounds in his first decade, has received widespread praise.
Abramovich has been a key Putin ally since his rise to power and has maintained his wealth while many oligarchs, including former business partner Boris Berezovsky, have lost theirs.
Despite the claims of corruption, there was no regulatory process to prevent the takeover, the first “fit-and-proper-person test” was introduced in 2004. While it promised to be a document that would prevent bad-faith actors from entering the game through ownership it is weak and spineless.
How can a man who has been deemed to have ordered the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi be judged as fit and proper?
“It has destroyed his (Salman’s) reputation, he’s desperately trying to use these types of deals to repair his image,” Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancé, told the Athletic after the takeover.
The Premier League insists that the PIF is not Saudi Arabia; this is although the investments are controlled by bin Salman himself and the board appointed by royal decree. The takeover itself has been in talks as early as April 2020.
The initial hold-up, a licencing deal between BeIN Sports, the Premier Leagues’ primary broadcasters in the Middle East – there was no issue with the PIF and bin Salman passing the owner’s and director’s test. This shows the true preoccupation of the Premier League, money. There were no issues welcoming a murderous, human right abusing regime, but rather ensuring that the broadcasting of the sport within the region was the only concern.
On October 6, 2021, the issues surrounding BeIN were resolved the Premier League welcomed its newest investor.
This indifference creates an environment for others whose aim is to manipulate, obscure, and pollute football with populism and authoritarianism. One that without proper regulation, that includes a more nuanced view of global issues – frankly one that takes seriously human rights – that the Premier League can be shielded from more bad-faith actors.
Abramovich was an early adopter but sportswashing is alive in the English game, and the League has turned a blind eye to the reality of it.