Subscriber OnlySoccer

Michael Walker: Never have geopolitics been so prominent as the Premier League reaches 30

Foreign ownership has changed English football and suddenly Mo Salah is connected to Hong Kong’s democracy

The photograph shows Mohammed Salah on his backside in Liverpool red appealing for a foul. The image is the only one on the newspaper page and all the more striking for it.

This was not the sports section, though; this was the business section of last Saturday’s London Times and the story was not about football — as in goals and tactics — it was about the sponsors’ name running across Salah’s Liverpool kit: Standard Chartered.

The bank, described as “Asia-focused”, has business in Hong Kong and China. In June 2020 Standard Chartered issued a statement of support for China’s National Security Law (NSL) which prohibits democratic protest by Hongkongers. The Chinese government will imprison “unpatriotic” protesters. Standard Chartered appear to be fine with the NSL as long as it “can help maintain the long-term economic and social stability of Hong Kong”.

It’s hardly Salah’s field of expertise, but his picture was prominent because the Houses of Parliament’s all-party group on Hong Kong had written to Liverpool FC about the club’s association with Standard Chartered. An economic relationship that began in 2010 has been extended recently to 2027. Liverpool make a reported £50 million a season out of the trade, so they can pay the excruciating wages of the likes of Salah.

The all-party group were not writing to congratulate LFC on their financial acumen, however; rather they were outlining concerns about things like human rights and democratic protest.

To repeat, Hong Kong’s 21st-century relations with China are not Salah’s domain. But unfortunately for some Reds, they have become Liverpool’s and a small minority of their fans will feel as conflicted as a small minority do at Newcastle United, where Saudi Arabian money has connected St James’ Park to the regime in Riyadh overseen by Mohammed bin Salman.

Neither governments, nor government proxies — an individual or business — should own or influence football clubs. The reason is simple: clubs cease to be sporting enterprises. Their purpose is not simply to win a match or a cup or a league, there are other considerations.

The guardians of football, or any sport, should know this and seek to protect the game from political interference, yet here we are marking the 30th anniversary of the Premier League and never have geopolitics been so present.

The recent report from Sheffield University, published in the Guardian, makes for disheartening reading on why the elite of Abu Dhabi own Manchester City and, as well as a beneficial neutralising profile, what they get from it. Those who bore on about how desirable Dubai and its meaningless skyscrapers are tend to skip the bit where Amnesty International describe (present tense) Abu Dhabi as “one of the most brutal police states in the Middle East”. Today that state has lots of land in Manchester, on 999-year leases, when Manchester is already stuffed with skyscrapers. They accentuate the city’s dire homelessness.

Now a wrecking-ball superstar, Erling Haaland, has joined City, a team that has lost 17 league games in the past five seasons. City have been champions four times in that period and though it was only by a point from Liverpool in May, Pep Guardiola’s squad embark on his seventh City season as heavy favourites. How sporting and democratic is this domestic domination?

But back to politics. Thirty years ago, it was the Barclays Premier League, which ushered in the new era dominated by Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.

The sponsorship caused some discomfort because although today Barclays is a banter term, it wasn’t in the 1970s or 80s. Then people up and down Britain picketed branches of Barclays and their apartheid-supporting business companion Shell. Barclays wasn’t banter to Steve Biko.

But those protests were not a conspicuous part of football; today they are. Foreign ownership of English clubs has changed football and the society in which it exists and suddenly Mo Salah is connected to Hong Kong’s democracy.

His photograph was not the only football picture not on the sports pages last weekend: on front pages were Coleen and Rebekah, the wives of Wayne Rooney and Jamie Vardy; on the news pages were images illustrating how England, the country, was anticipating Sunday’s Euro 2022 final; on the comment pages it was asked what this fresh anticipation says about women’s football. Then there were the sports supplements.

Football is everywhere, in every thing. It has become a medium of expression, formerly the territory of music or street protest.

This week’s decision not to take the knee before every Premier League match feels like a retreat, because of the very prominence football gives antiracism. Perhaps the new policy of intermittent knee-taking will have a greater effect, but you suspect racists will be soothed by not being confronted weekly.

One wonders what Colin Kaepernick thinks of it, or of Chelsea’s summer tour of the US, when Christian Pulisic was asked about his nation’s gun crime epidemic; or of Tel Aviv last Sunday, where Paris St-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi was booed for his public sympathy for Palestinians.

Why were PSG playing the French equivalent of the Community Shield against Nantes in Israel? Qatar, who own PSG, will know.

Qatar, of course, is where all these lanes lead. Political football has been kicked down the road to Doha and we have a winter World Cup interrupting league seasons instead of being a climax to them.

It will work, probably. Darkening days and nights in western Europe will surely appreciate a televised tournament screened hourly into livingrooms — 64 games condensed into 28 days.

So while you might think football has reached saturation point, it will flood the streets again. It is already in England — 31,000 turned up at Derby County last Saturday to see the Rams play third division football for the first time since 1986. Less than 24 hours later more than 40,000 were at Sunderland to witness their Championship game with Coventry City. The hills are alive with the sound of football.

The ubiquity is staggering and Salah’s photograph emphasises not just the game’s invasion of other areas, but its increasing geopolitical significance. (Not that football invaded geopolitics, it’s the other way round.)

A positive is that Premier League wealth means Haaland and Salah are two of many reasons to tune in and record foreign TV income reveals how many want to do just that. The globe is England-focused; Premier League income and profile go up again.

It restarted last night in south London with Arsenal travelling to Crystal Palace. Boring Arsenal are interesting again, but possibly not as much as rivals Tottenham. Could the signings of Ivan Perisic, Richarlison and Yves Bissouma be transformational? There’s a chance.

In west London this will be Chelsea’s first non-Roman Abramovich season since 2003. Antonio Rudiger has also gone. Kalidou Koulibaly and Raheem Sterling have arrived. So, too, Marc Cucurella – suddenly Chelsea are spending at Abramovich levels.

Sadio Mané is another who has departed, but Liverpool have recruited Darwin Nunez, and Luis Diaz, who did not play until February, should feel new. Salah is retained. Liverpool, like City, can win the league.

Manchester United cannot. In May United finished 35 points behind City, closer to relegated Burnley. New manager Erik ten Hag has Christian Eriksen, a solution, and Cristiano Ronaldo, a problem.

The club has a few of the latter. You’ll see pictures of it all soon. Everywhere.