Michael Walker: Latest incidence of sports-washing leaves fans hung out to dry

Motivation of Watford owners and those behind Newcastle takeover open to question

Last Sunday morning news began to filter out of Vicarage Road that Watford were on the brink of dismissing their manager Xisco Munoz.

This was a surprise given Watford are 15th in the Premier League and had been most unlucky to have had a legitimate goal ruled out against Leeds at Elland Road the previous afternoon.

Munoz had been in charge since last December and was Watford's 13th manager in the seven years since the Pozzo family from Italy took full control of the club.

Like some of the others such as Javi Gracia, Munoz appeared to be doing a good job. Watford were promoted in May and they have beaten Aston Villa and Norwich so far this season. They could stay up and Premier League survival and the wealth that comes with it is the club's primary aim. Consecutive seasons in the richest division in the world brings a minimum of about €200 million.


Considering the Pozzo family came to acquire the club, then in the Championship, in part via the use of a forged bank letter which allegedly confirmed their finances, such money matters.

Watford, the club, were fined £3.95 million in August 2017 for the 2014 forgery of a HSBC letter. But by then the Pozzos were in control of Watford and, remarkably, no-one seems to mention it any more. (The fact that Giampaolo Pozzo was sanctioned for match-fixing in Serie A while controlling Udinese does not get much airtime either.)

One of the reasons for this oversight is that Watford fans were so depressed by their previous owner, a character called Laurence Bassini, who was found guilty of misconduct and dishonesty by an independent commission. This led to him being barred by the Football League for three years. Still, Bassini came back in 2019, hovering around troubled Bolton Wanderers, then Oldham, then Charlton.

In the context of Bassini, the Watford support considered the Pozzos’ ownership more favourably. Questions over their motivation for being at Vicarage Road were unasked. Yet we can probably guess they’re at Watford for more than sport.

It is the question of the week, of the era in fact: Who buys a football club and why?

It moves fast. By Monday Munoz was yesterday's news. In came Claudio Ranieri. An old friend.

Financial figures

And so to Tuesday. In America, two men called Glazer, Kevin and Edward, sold 9.5 million shares in Manchester United. The dollar value of these shares was 21.3 million, which is not a bad morning's work, solid revenue for the club.

The New York Stock Exchange, however, had a statement saying Manchester United "will not receive any proceeds from the sale of any shares". It followed on from March when another Glazer, Avram, sold shares totalling £70 million and none of that went into Old Trafford either. Apparently, the Glazers are "committed to United in the long term". At these hourly rates, who can blame them?

Again, who buys a football club and why?

On Wednesday the American investment fund, MSD Holdings, revealed its latest financial figures showing it has lent money to four English clubs. The most notable of these loans was to Derby County.

Derby are in administration, bottom of the Championship having suffered a 12-point deduction. They owe MSD – the initials are those of Michael Dell, the man from Dell – £15 million and, with interest, counting.

This is the entity the administrators are trying to sell. They are confident, it is said, but a couple of reasonable questions from afar are who would buy Derby County, a club headed for the third tier in English football, with serious debts we know of and perhaps some we don’t, and why?

Then on Thursday, at 5pm on Tyneside, there was an eruption from the hundreds of Newcastle United fans gathered anxiously outside St James' Park awaiting confirmation that their club had finally been taken over and that the Mike Ashley era was done.

A new group backed by Saudi Arabia was in control and £300 million had changed hands. This has the potential to be transformational for Newcastle, if intelligent decisions are made in terms of a new manager and recruitment.

Locally the excitable think Newcastle could become Manchester City Mk II, but City's day-to-day football identity is based on the presence of Pep Guardiola, players like Kevin de Bruyne or Vincent Kompany before him. Newcastle have a way to go get there, because there are not many of these players or managers.

For others, however, those two words, Saudi and Arabia, were enough to send shivers through them. Things such as human rights, women’s rights, gay rights and opposition rights, in Saudi Arabia, these are wrongs.

To be a journalist or a critic such as Jamal Khashoggi was to experience much worse. Khashoggi was murdered three years ago this week. It was at the behest of Saudi Arabia.

Commercial dealings

Some thought this horror was the reason why the takeover of Newcastle stalled. It wasn't – the Premier League has no pretension to be a moral arbiter in a country where the former foreign secretary Dominic Raab referred this very week to the "nonsense" of the Human Rights Act.

No, the Premier League was annoyed because its commercial dealings with Qatar were being infringed by Saudi Arabia. It was an issue of piracy settled by money.

Eventually, early this week, Saudi Arabia put down cash, allegedly £1 billion. They have the wherewithal. Within 72 hours they owned Newcastle United and the fans cheered rather than asking questions, because they were rid of Ashley.

We are now all too familiar with the concept of sports-washing, the laundering of a bad reputation via sport, in this case football. It is why Abu Dhabi bought City, why Qatar took on Paris St-Germain. What was Roman Abramovich doing when he bought Chelsea, a club he had no connection to?

Given the attention football brings these states and individuals, a secondary question would be if sports-washing actually works. Because another question concerns sporting achievement and how so many of us find any triumph by clubs such as Chelsea, City or PSG hollow. And if sport is hollow, if it is rigged economically, doped financially as Arsene Wenger put it, where's the triumph? Where's the sport?

It should not even need saying that sovereign governments should not be allowed to buy football clubs. But then you look at some of the individual purchasers and their motivation . . .

When Manchester United played Young Boys of Bern three weeks ago, the travelling fans unveiled a banner in the second half. "Beautiful Game", it read. Immediately, the home fans unveiled a choreographed response: "Ugly Business."