FFootball, not just the national game, is England’s political theater. The way the fan spasm of protest stopped the European Super League in its tracks in April, and which the Prime Minister wrongly claimed as his own victory, spoke to both a residual public sense – albeit often dormant. – of justice and communitarianism, and the shamelessness of our political conversation with the snakeskin. The open conflict between the England men’s team, the Conservative government and part of the England fan base to kneel down at Euro 2020 was a battle over who would define the terms of our debate on structural racism . Now, the long-awaited sale of Newcastle United to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund shows England’s practically and morally diminished place in the world, and the roads that have led us there.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is not the first politician to take an interest in Newcastle United. In the early 1990s, Tony Blair, then opposition leader, was busy polishing his local credentials by declaring his loyalty to the team, denouncing Andy Cole’s transfer to Manchester United in The Sun., and play with Kevin Keegan. Like Blair, Newcastle United was the thing to come. After four decades without a trophy, but now under the new ownership of Sir John Hall, both a Thatcherite property developer and an advocate for regional government and regeneration in the North East, Keegan’s Newcastle was challenging the Premiership title and playing a fabulous football for packed halls. In 1996, Alan Shearer arrived, for a then-record transfer fee, and told a raving crowd that he was still “the son of a sheet metal worker.” One could have been forgiven for thinking that after the hammer blows of 17 years of Thatcherism, there was hope for an English working class and regional renewal.
As we know, things did not go quite as planned. Keegan and his team imploded. New Labor took power but delivered neither significant devolution nor a model of regeneration that could sustainably revive the city. Hall’s investments in the club turned out to be loans, some repaid at insanely high interest rates. The Hall and Shepherd families (Freddy Shepherd succeeded Hall as president in 1997), showing extraordinary contempt for the club’s fans, presided over the decline and then sold to Mike Ashley, cashing in a few hundred million.
Whatever failures of Ashley’s regime, and there were many, the broader structural transformations in English football have made any real revival of the club nearly impossible. Unable to secure a regular place in European competition, or establish themselves as a global brand, Newcastle were losing ground each season against teams from London, Manchester and Liverpool. More importantly, Ashley has actually tried to run the club like a business and sells it as a for-profit institution, albeit abandoned. But in the absence of collective wage controls, and with the arrival of other owners who had neither need nor interest in balanced books – like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and the United Arab Emirates at Manchester City – it was a strategy doomed to mediocrity at best.
It’s no wonder, then, that most Newcastle residents are delighted to now have their own oligarchs to play with. Having failed, as a city and a club, through the lukewarm reforms of the New Labor regeneration program, the rentier economy of local real estate developers and the low-wage, sweatshop capitalism of 21st century retail billionaires , why wouldn’t you go for foreign oligarchs and their fossil fuel investment funds? This is precisely what a significant segment of the country’s elites have been doing for years.
There is an entire industry, predominantly in London and the South East, which has grown grotesquely rich by catering to the political and economic needs of Gulf ruling families, oligarchs and dynasties everywhere. From banks that launder stolen money, to accountants who then hide it; from lawyers who solve delicate home affairs to public relations firms who repair the damage afterwards, and estate agents who organize to store your wealth in empty residential skyscrapers of London. Our governments and our arms industry have done little better, barely able to censor the Saudi state for its human rights abuses, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or its war in Yemen for fear of losing huge sales. weapons and construction contracts. And yet, now Newcastle United fans are supposed to lead the fight for human rights?
There is another world of football in which this kind of obnoxious compromises and contradictions could be softened. The distribution of money within the Premier League and football more broadly could have been more equal. Regulatory and control systems could have put an end to the arms race of spending and the concentration of capital and the success of football. It would have been a world in which Newcastle’s incredibly loyal support would have been of economic benefit rather than uselessness.
Properly regulated football would have drawn the line for Abramovich as the owner, let alone allowing exiled prime ministers around the world and sovereign wealth funds of authoritarian states to buy clubs. In fact, Newcastle United, and all the other teams, could have moved to German-style social ownership.
However, at every turn, as in our economy and society at large, we have allowed the private to trump the public. We cultivate and tolerate levels of inequality, poverty and downward social mobility, and we have long made peace with the power of capital, regardless of its origins and actions. How many times do we have to learn the lesson that if you continually deny people the hope that this can change for the better, they will turn to those who offer something different, however pernicious their real intentions, however false? what are their prospectuses?