How much is a football club worth? The fans’ revolt earlier this year against the proposed European Super League provided one answer. Though the project would have enriched their teams, it offended against values that transcend those of the market. Clubs are community institutions that bind those who are dead, those who are living and those who are to be born – they should not be treated as mere financial assets to be exploited in distant boardrooms.
But to the question of how much a football club is worth, the £300m sale of Newcastle United to a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund provides a different answer: whatever the highest bidder will pay.
The club’s de facto new owner is Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who is believed to have ordered the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and whose country stands accused of bombing schools, hospitals and other civilian targets in Yemen. But no one should be surprised that the moral standing of Newcastle’s new owners was of limited importance. Since 2008, Manchester City has been owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, a country that, in the words of Amnesty International, “relies on exploited migrant labour and locks up peaceful critics and human rights defenders”. Chelsea is owned by Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin. The Premier League is a competition in which money invariably trumps morals.
The national game was not always so rampantly commercialised. As the late historian Tony Judt observed in his book Ill Fares the Land (2010), until the 1980s, “such advertising as there was confined itself to placards mounted around the pitch; the idea of attaching commercial announcements to the players themselves would simply never have occurred to anyone – the resulting cacophony of colour and text would have detracted from the visual unity of the team”.
But with the launch of the Premier League in 1992, football became one of the chief emblems of a market society. That it was born in the post-Thatcherite era was no coincidence, nor is it any surprise that the league has become the plaything of sheikhs and oligarchs. No other major Western country has allowed so many of its pre-eminent companies and strategic industries to fall into foreign ownership. These include Cadbury (bought by US firm Kraft in 2010), Jaguar Land Rover (acquired by India’s Tata Group in 2008) and Imperial Chemical Industries (sold to the Dutch company AkzoNobel in 2008).
China, a country that has detained an estimated one million Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities in concentration camps in Xinjiang, holds a 33.5 per cent stake in the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant under construction in Somerset, a 10 per cent stake in Heathrow airport and nearly a 9 per cent stake in Thames Water. It has become the largest crude oil operator in the North Sea, despite the China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s chairman declaring to employees in 2012 that “large-scale deep-water rigs are our mobile national territory and a strategic weapon”.
When football clubs sell themselves to unethical investors, they are only mirroring the practices of the British state. George Osborne, the former Tory chancellor, declared in September 2015 that there was “no economy in the world as open to Chinese investment as the UK”. David Cameron, the former prime minister, went on a desert camping trip with Crown Prince Bin Salman in 2020 as part of his avaricious exploits on behalf of the now collapsed finance firm Greensill Capital.
The fans’ successful revolt against the European Super League offered a window of opportunity for change. Praise was heaped on the German model, which bars opportunistic owners from taking control of football clubs by ensuring that supporters retain a majority stake. But the Newcastle deal is confirmation that in the UK business as usual has prevailed.
In different respects, the 2008 financial crisis, the Brexit vote and the UK’s baleful handling of the Covid-19 pandemic were symptoms of a broken economic system, one that puts short-term gain before long-term resilience. Until this model is abandoned, it will not only be Britain’s assets for sale; it will be its morals, too.
This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm