“We got our club back! We got our club back!” fans of the Newcastle United Football Club chanted joyously outside St James’ Park stadium as the news broke that Mike Ashley was no longer the club’s owner. Except they didn’t really get their club back. It was purchased by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF). Members of the English Premier League may believe the PIF’s assurances that it has no links with the Al-Saud dynasty, but who else can believe that, given that Mohammed Bin Salman, the king of Saudi Arabia and current head of that dynasty, is the PIF’s chair? Likewise, Manchester City FC is majority-owned by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and Paris St. Germain FC is owned by the Emir of Qatar.
Nevertheless, Newcastle fans are excited—and why wouldn’t they be? The immense wealth of the new owners has activated long repressed dreams that glory will come to St. James’ Park. They have the means to invest in the infrastructure of the club and attract better players. Most fans will take that from anyone.
Much of the outcry against the new ownership has focused on a fear that the new Saudi owners will use Newcastle United to engage in sportswashing—burnishing their image to divert attention from their widely condemned activities, such as institutionalised discrimination against women within their kingdom.
Some who support the new ownership suggest that critics of the takeover are just journalists with an agenda—or fans of other big clubs with wealthy owners who want to deny Newcastle the same success—or fans of smaller clubs who envy Newcastle its new wealth. And a common retort to the human rights complaints is whataboutism: who are we to pontificate about human rights when our governments also wage wars and violate human rights standards? And why single out football clubs when the Saudis invest in lots of other groups, like Facebook and Uber? Are we expected to boycott all these groups just to polish our halos?
In fairness, these comparisons are not unreasonable, and they could also be directed at other football clubs. Take Arsenal, for example. Its stadium and shirt sponsor is Emirates Airlines—a subsidiary of a group owned by the Dubai government’s investment company. And its sleeve sponsor’s slogan is “Visit Rwanda”—a country ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in Africa. Moreover, the Premier League is hypocritically marketing itself as inclusive and tolerant of diversity when many of the owners of its member football clubs are anything but. It also markets a rainbow laces campaign in support of LGBT people and against homophobia, yet many of its member clubs are owned by regimes that oppress gay people.
Thus, there’s no reason to single out Newcastle United: their takeover is just one example of what’s happening in the broader landscape of football. It isn’t the first politicised takeover, and it won’t be the last: that genie is out of the bottle. It is merely the most recent spotlight calling attention to the problems that plague modern football: sportswashing, ultra-commercialisation, and the intimate mixing of big money with big geopolitics.
During the late 1980s and much of the 1990s, Italian football had the most money and the best players in the world. England wasn’t seen as an attractive football destination. But after the Premier League was formed, English football was transformed. The Premier League was an improved product that motivated ultra-wealthy political actors—from Russian oligarchs to Middle Eastern potentates—to buy English clubs. In the league’s first season, its revenue was £170 million, and there were only 13 foreign players among its squads on opening day. By last year, the league’s revenue had climbed to €5.16 billion, and this year there are 330 foreign players among its member clubs. The league’s wealth has enabled it to attract some of the world’s best players and managers and hence to break records year after year.
It’s become a cliché to say that money has corrupted the soul of football, which has long been known as the working man’s game. Although, in one sense, football is only a game, in another sense, it is a way of life. It is not just about watching 22 people spend 90 minutes trying to kick a ball into a fishnet; it is about feelings, soul, passion, romance, drama and beauty. And similarly, football clubs have been—to borrow Barcelona’s slogan—more than clubs. Like religion and nationalism, football clubs are imagined communities, whose followers enjoy a deep collective memory and a sense of identity and solidarity with each other. They are social institutions—the heartbeat of towns and cities across the world, centres of civic pride and symbols of the collective aspirations of their communities.
These qualities have given football its unique character and inspired fans to express intense devotion to their teams. Yet those qualities are at odds with the current landscape of football, in which commercial imperatives reign supreme, football clubs are essentially multinational corporations with little connection to their local communities (beyond occasional philanthropic efforts for the sake of good PR) and the number of many clubs’ so-called tourist fans now dwarfs the number of their hometown fans.
A common lament is that homegrown players have been pushed out by the influx of foreign talent. The big clubs are particularly likely to field teams with more foreign players than British-born players. And this clashes with a folk tale to which many fans are attached: that of the local lad who came through the ranks into the first team of their boyhood club and then went on to achieve great things, enabling fans to live out their dreams vicariously through him.
But it can arguably only benefit British players to compete with and be coached by the world’s best—and fans can come to adore foreign players and managers as much as British-born ones—and make them just as much part of their club’s folklore. For example, earlier this season, there was a Beatlemania level of excitement surrounding the return of Madeira-born Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United.
Thus, it would be folly to think of the globalisation of football as a wholly negative phenomenon. Only a troglodyte could complain about being able to watch the likes of Mohamed Salah, Paul Pogba and Kevin De Bruyne playing in the same league—or about having managers of the calibre of Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel competing against each other in the same league, using different systems and tactical philosophies.
The commercialisation and globalisation of football, like globalisation in general, has produced progress. However, as Hegel and Marx pointed out, progress is a mixed bag: it creates something good (a modernised, more cosmopolitan game watched and admired by billions across the world) as well as something bad (the erosion of the local attachments football clubs had represented and the underwriting of enormous inequalities and de facto oligopolies).
The drawbacks remain: in addition to the intermingling of football with geopolitical power manoeuvres, globalisation has created ultra-commercialism and huge inequalities between clubs. Smaller clubs understandably aspire to compete successfully and win major honours. But probably the only way they could achieve this would be for an oligarch to take a financial interest in their club—and there are only so many oligarchs to go around. This may be one reason why many football clubs are evolving into franchises—as demonstrated by the proposed plans for a European Super League, announced earlier this year. Any spontaneous sense of rivalry between clubs is withering away in the service of a money-making exercise.
The legendary Manchester United manager Matt Busby said in a 1973 interview that he feared the beautiful game had “lost a bit of its charm” and warmth. Players and supporters are no longer smiling and exuding the bliss that the game can evoke. If present developments continue, then his comments will have been prophetic.
The challenge that football faces today is how to build upon the positive ways the game has been modernised and develop the openness and cosmopolitan joy of watching the best of the homegrown players and the best from abroad play and compete together, while reducing the current soullessness, cartelism and abuse of football clubs by wealthy investors. This will require viewing globalisation not as a single thing to be for or against, but as a process with multiple strands, some good, some bad. Many football fans have to now realise that positive change can only come through collective action.