Joanne O’Riordan: Moral compass doesn’t work for long in the great vacuum that is sport

Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United should turn focus on human rights record

Newcastle United’s Saudi Arabian chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan and  minority owner Amanda Staveley take their seats for the  Premier League  match against  Tottenham Hotspur at St James’ Park. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

Newcastle United’s Saudi Arabian chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan and minority owner Amanda Staveley take their seats for the Premier League match against Tottenham Hotspur at St James’ Park. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

 

You’d be forgiven if Sunday’s game between Tottenham and Newcastle United swept you up in some feverish euphoria, particularly the first 15 minutes and the jubilant scenes that took place before kick-off.

Hugely unpopular owner Mike Ashley was officially gone, with underachieving and mid-table Newcastle becoming the wealthiest team in the world after the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund that solely exists to boost Saudi Arabia from a tourist hotspot to culturally being the soundest folk around.

PIF isn’t a political body, despite de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman being head of the fund, but he along with Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of the PIF and Newcastle’s new chairman, assure us when the Crown Prince is making decisions, he’s doing so as a chairman, somehow managing to separate himself from the Crown Prince title.

Tottenham Hotspur’s official LGBTQ+ supporters’ association used the game as an opportunity to raise awareness of Suhail Al-Jameel, a gay man currently in prison, for posting a topless selfie in short

Anyway, Yasir al-Rumayyan was given a warm Geordie welcome, as fans unanimously got up and applauded their new overlord when beckoned by the stadium announcer. Minority owner Amanda Staveley, the public face of the new enterprise, was also floating around which shows how Saudi Arabian leaders can, in fact, deal with women.

After all, they have started to let women drive accompanied by their men, but this was only done after activist Loujain al-Hathloul was imprisoned for three years and hidden away. Loujain al-Hathloul has since been released but is under strict conditions, including a five-year travel ban and three years of probation.

Amid all the craziness, United with Pride, Newcastle United’s official LGBTQ fan group, posted a statement about how it feels about PIF’s takeover over their club. After all, Saudi Arabia is one of the least tolerant countries when it comes to LGBTQ communities. United with Pride hopes this takeover will start a dialogue and commended PIF for negotiating with Staveley. Which was nice.

So, Tottenham Hotspur’s official LGBTQ+ supporters’ association used the game as an opportunity to raise awareness of Suhail Al-Jameel, a gay man currently in prison, for posting a topless selfie in shorts. His charge was spreading nudity online.

Within 90 minutes, we all forgot our troubles, and the headlines the following day were transfer options

He was arrested before on a beach under the charge of “parental disobedience”, a draconian Saudi law allowing parents to declare children disobedient and hold them in contempt. His parents had just found out he was gay.

So, these are the new boys in the Premier League, who initially weren’t welcome as there was a row over television rights holders BeIN Sport, the Qatari based sports station. Gary Neville on Monday Night Football declared that it’s a good thing that PIF are in the Premier League. After all, there’s now a bright spotlight shining on Saudi Arabia, and more column inches than ever are dedicated to human rights atrocities in Saudi Arabia.

Under Gary’s list of places that have been harmonised because of football was Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Russia and now Saudi Arabia. What he failed to mention was each of those countries appeared friendly for the month. They actually stamped down harder on disobedience and civil unrest so the world could see these countries as harmonious and lovely to live in.

Russia actually stopped for the month of the World Cup its clampdown on LGBTQ communities, and continued once the cameras went off. Qatar, despite international pleas, still use migrant workers to build stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in inhumane conditions. United Arab Emirates’ largest construction company Arabtec are still widely criticised for the same thing.

Many of these countries are involved in the horrific war in Yemen, which has seen 10,000 innocent children maimed or killed in the six-year-long conflict. An entire country has been torn apart by owners of Premier League teams.

Bleakly, sport and football have this weird skill to bend and twist reality, so everything looks okay. No storyline is too exaggerated, no script is unrealistic enough for people to lose interest or complain. There is also a willingness to adapt when you have no moral compass. Despite everyone knowing football doesn’t exist in a vacuum and sport can’t be separated from society, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that sport has become its own world, a microcosm where no rules apply, and very few seem to care.

Within 90 minutes, we all forgot our troubles, and the headlines the following day were transfer options and budgets set by PIF. The notion that an entire country could use a Premier League team as a shiny new distraction toy is officially underway.

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