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Newcastle’s Takeover Reflects How Football Ownership Is Changing

By Sofia Lammali

At 5pm on 7 October, Newcastle fans received the news they had been waiting for: their club had finally been taken over by a Saudi consortium. The reaction was euphoric. Supporters gathered outside St James’ Park in celebration. For anyone involved in the football community, Newcastle’s fanbase’s distaste towards previous owner Mike Ashley was no secret, with the Sports Direct founder receiving long-standing criticism for his lack of investment in the club. 

The euphoria was understandable: the man holding them, underfunding them, who had renamed their home ground St James’ Park to the Sports Direct Arena was finally gone. But attention immediately turned to the new owners: the Saudi-owned Public Investment Fund (PIF). Newcastle were now by far the richest club in the world, with the net worth of PIF, a reported £320 billion, dwarfing the previous title holders, Manchester City, and their measly £23.3 billion.

The focus of many human rights groups was instead on the involvement of the Saudi state. Amnesty International has accused them of having an appalling record on women’s and LGBT rights. It pointed to the harassing and jailing of activists and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Amanda Stavely, a British businesswoman who was key in driving the takeover and is now a 10% stakeholder in the club, has been keen to emphasise that PIF is an organisation completely separate and unrelated to the Saudi state. A dubious assertion when a quick glance at the PIF website reveals they describe themselves as the “sovereign wealth fund”, with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin-Salman, along with other Saudi ministers, board members.

This kind of takeover and ownership in football is not new. Manchester City is owned by the City Football Group, which is owned by Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG) – which is, in turn, owned by Sheikh Mansour, Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE, and member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. Outside the UK, Paris Saint Germain have a similar ownership plan through the Emir of Qatar, who owns PSG through closed shareholders Qatar Sports Investments. Human rights organisations have criticised these takeovers as intended to launder the image of repressive authoritarian regimes, so which other countries and billionaires will get in on the act?

There are also sporting implications. Manchester City and PSG all saw significant improvements to almost all aspects of their club following their takeover. Once mid-table, struggling clubs, they found themselves winning titles and cups that they used to only dream of. Truthfully, football is becoming more and more a money game. The more you have, the more you win. The gulf in wealth between the richest and poorest clubs has rendered the sport of the underdog into a monopoly, with large score lines and influxes of players to the same few clubs. For Newcastle, wealthy owners should inevitably mean trophies, something they have lacked for many years now, but at what cost?

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