There was a time, just a few years ago, when news that someone was buying Newcastle United would have thrilled me.
But that was before Jamal Khashoggi.
Because, the buyers? Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, via their Public Investment Fund (the world’s largest state-owned investment).
And here’s the messy thing. I’m still not sure if I know whether or not I can support Newcastle United. Knowing what I know, I still might feel my heart rate rise and fall with the results of soccer games on the other side of the world, in a corner of England I’ve not even visited.
So this isn’t some virtue-signalling post where I renounce Newcastle United as a proxy statement of political resistance.
It’s just me, a long time fan, not a native fan, but one who’s persisted in following Newcastle through relegation and back again even without a single reason in the world to give them my allegiance, wrestling with what it might mean to cheer for a team funded through murky means. Bread and circuses.
Let’s back up for those of you who don’t know Newcastle United, Jamal Khashoggi, or Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
Newcastle, as you might imagine, are an English Premier League (for now) team from Newcastle, England. And in the Premier League, in global soccer, and in global sports all together, money talks. Money’s exciting. New money? New hopes, and new dreams.
Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen living in the US, writing articles critical of the Saudi regime as a journalist for the Washington Post, killed and disappeared after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman rules Saudi Arabia, is widely suspected of authorizing the murder of Khashoggi, and is the chairman of the Public Investment Fund.
So, this £300 million takeover, with English investor Amanda Staveley serving as a face for the consortium?
If you’ve tied your emotions to a team and you’re hearing they’re getting a windfall investment from ambitious new owners, you’re going to feel exhilarated. Even though you don’t earn a penny from your fanaticism.
I would have quickly found a justification why spending hundreds of millions of pounds wasn’t actually buying success, rather than earning it.
Because Newcastle United are my team and the prospect of global stars playing for them would have been the stuff of fantasy football. And that’s as someone who adopted Newcastle to root for because of one player, Alan Shearer.
Can I still support the Magpies? (Ignoring for now the fact that their results on the field, which have left them mired in the relegation zone, could make it easier in theory to walk away from a boring, shell of a squad).
Before you think I’m feeling sorry for myself, caught on the horns of a utterly shallow sporting dilemma, I’m not. Imagine if you’re actually from Newcastle, with actual geographic links anchoring your heart to the sporting results at St. James Park.
But Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 and his remains have never been found.
There has been no justice. Saudi courts have sentenced five men to death for Khashoggi’s murder, but the sentences were later reduced to 20 years. Three other men received lesser sentences. In other words, there has been no justice, and no repercussions for the Saudi government.
Eighteen months ago, a rumored bid to buy Newcastle by the same consortium ran into a roadblock, based on human rights concerns.
What’s changed now? Tragedies + time + a shit ton of money = rolling with the times.
Even the US government, with previous harsh rhetoric about the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, well, I don’t think we can expect punitive actions to come from there.
Resources talk. Oil talks. (As a side note, one does have to admire Saudi Arabia’s practicality in looking to divest a bit from oil, pivoting into the sporting business; it makes perfect economic sense, and serves to launder the state’s reputation, perhaps. Just a bit).
The Premier League asserts that it has received “legally-binding” assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not be controlling Newcastle’s operations.
That may be so, but who cares? Muhammad bin Salman will profit from any success Newcastle finds.
The value of my opinion? Doesn’t matter at all. It won’t bring justice for Jamal. It won’t solve human rights issues, one way or the other. And, really, not being from Newcastle, who am I to criticize the ownership and financial path of the city’s talismanic club?
But what would it mean for my sense of self if the team I cheer for is backed by people who had a journalist brutally killed just because?
I could just ignore the ramifications and enjoy the bread and circuses. And I might do so, especially if these Erling Haaland rumors keep flying around. Everyone wants their team to win, no matter the cost. But that’s just a product of over-heated fans fantasizing about spending other people’s money. In other words, totally addictive gossip and rumor.
But I can’t help wishing the new owners of Newcastle United were very different than they are. Because I’ve clearly learned nothing about wishing.