Premier League now a theatre for toxic global geopolitics

Worrying Saudi takeover of Newcastle puts broadcast rights ahead of human rights

The Premier League has been asked to consider blocking a Saudi-backed consortium’s attempt to purchase Newcastle by one of the league’s major broadcast partners. File photograph: PA

The Premier League has been asked to consider blocking a Saudi-backed consortium’s attempt to purchase Newcastle by one of the league’s major broadcast partners. File photograph: PA

 

Finally. Someone with actual power and clout prepared to stand up to the despotic thugs of Saudi Arabia, and lobby the Premier League to block the proposed takeover of the cherished community institution Newcastle United. But wait. Who are these mysterious philanthropists, these heroic knights of human rights? Angels of justice, reveal yourselves at once! Oh. Hello there, Qatar. Right. That’s a bit awkward.

Still: any port in a storm, as they say. And the news that the most significant opposition to the purchase of Newcastle comes not from the Premier League or from Newcastle fans but from beIN Sports, the home of Richard Keys and Andy Gray and in effect the media arm of the Qatari government, should at the very least offer us pause for thought. These are disorienting times, and so perhaps it’s only to be expected that a few unholy alliances are going to be formed along the way.

Just take Keys himself as an example, who on his beIN show this week has been gravely opining on the proposed Saudi takeover of Newcastle, opposing it on – wait for it – ethical grounds. “If you are a host country, then I think you have a right to say: look, here are the rules,” Keys said, still somehow managing to avoid making eye contact with the elephant stampeding through the studio. “Are we to look away and forget everything?”

You know your takeover is going through a rough patch when Richard “Did you smash it?” Keys is lecturing you on moral rectitude. When you run an absolute monarchy, you’re probably not overly accustomed to dissent, and certainly not from a former TV-AM presenter who looks like he smells faintly of the inside of a Rover 800.

It’s important to note that Qatar’s objections to the Newcastle takeover do not rely on this same rock-solid logic. The letter that beIN has sent to all 20 Premier League teams, as well as its chief executive, Richard Masters, wisely steers clear of morality altogether, which is probably just as well given the mere mention of the word would probably have sent most chief executives hunting for a dictionary. No, if the first rule of writing is to speak your reader’s language, then beIN has pitched its perfectly: underlining the grave threat posed by Saudi Arabia to the league’s broadcast revenue streams.

“Not only has the potential acquirer of Newcastle United caused huge damage to your club’s and the Premier League’s commercial revenues, but the legacy of the illegal service will continue to impact you going forward,” writes beIN’s chief executive, Yousef al-Obaidly. “When the Premier League season recommences in the coming months, all of the league’s broadcasters’ content will continue to be readily and illegally available.”

The “illegal service” in question is beoutQ, a cartoonishly brazen Saudi piracy operation that broadcasts a range of global sporting events by simply siphoning off beIN’s broadcast signal. Essentially, it’s the large-scale equivalent of the oldest pub trick in the book: sticking up a foreign satellite dish to circumvent the Saturday broadcast blackout and show the 3pm kick-offs illegally. And who says Saudi Arabia doesn’t understand English football culture?

Here, though, the stakes are far higher: beIN is the Premier League’s biggest overseas broadcast partner, with a deal worth £500m. And there is of course a far larger context at work here, one with its roots in the vast proxy war between Qatar and Saudi Arabia being waged on several fronts. Already, some of the less self-aware Newcastle fans on social media are busily trashing Qatar’s own human rights record as a reason not to care about Saudi Arabia’s.

Equally, though, Qatar’s heavy-handed intervention may just harden the significant body of opinion within Newcastle’s fanbase that are delighted to see the back of Mike Ashley yet harbour deep concerns about who they may be letting through the door. Taking on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is one thing. But if Qatar can be reframed as the real enemy here, then perhaps a few Newcastle fans will be persuaded to swing behind their prospective new owners as the most biddable of a bad bunch.

This, in a way, was always the danger of opening up the Premier League so accommodatingly to the toxic influences of global geopolitics. Partly, of course, it is simply a reflection of how wars are fought these days: not just on the ravaged battlefields of Yemen but in the commercial real estate offices of Manhattan and London, the bully-pulpits of social media, and now the Zoom meetings of English football. The Premier League has long sold itself on the basis of tribal conflict, endless narrative and wall-to-wall entertainment. Perhaps establishing itself as a theatre for actual war is simply the next logical step.

And so, welcome to the new orthodoxies of English football. Saudi Arabia is good. Amnesty International is bad. New signings are more important than murder, broadcast rights are more important than women’s rights, and a sense of basic humanity is ultimately expendable if you can scrape into next season’s Europa League. It’s a manifesto, to be sure. Just don’t expect anyone with a scintilla of decency to feel warmly about it. - Guardian

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