What should we do to fight back against sportswashing?

The morality of Saudi money in football, part 3

The massive Saudi investment into football this summer has brought increased urgency to debate about sportswashing. In the previous two parts of this discussion, I first set out why there is reason to be morally concerned about Saudi involvement in the sport (and sport in general, more broadly), then argued that ethically we should be more concerned to think about complicity with a sportswashing exercise, as opposed to just focussing on hypocrisy and whether individuals are totally consistent with their expressed beliefs.

Now I want to put forward some suggestions that follow from this approach as to what fans can do in response to this issue.

Before getting into that, however, I think it is helpful to clarify what the general guiding aims of action should be. To do that, let’s first think about what the aims of sportswashing are: states engage in sportswashing as a means to extend their influence through an incredibly high-profile area of our social and cultural lives; their emphasis is on creating positive reputational impact for their state, while distracting from wrongdoing. In the process, they make participants within sporting institutions (not only players, but also other staff and a wider community of fans) complicit within a cover-up exercise.

The sportswasher, therefore, wants fans to be so enthused by the sporting spectacle that they ignore any wider concerns. Pushing-back against sportswashing requires us as fans to not be compliant with this wish.

What to do if an authoritarian state buys your team

So, let’s suppose the team you support becomes the subject of a takeover by a regime looking to engage in sportswashing. How should you respond?

Firstly, let’s outline something I don’t think you have to do. You do not have to sever all ties in order to be able to have and raise concerns. I put the case in the previous post that absolute purity cannot be demanded as a precondition for criticism: we should not be so concerned about hypocrisy as to say that you cannot voice concern about your club’s ownership while still attending games, or engaging in other forms of support for the team. It is absolutely understandable if some fans come to decide that they find some forms of ongoing association with the club too much to bear, but given just how deep within our identities football affiliation can sit, it seems unreasonable to demand this of any dissatisfied fans.

We do, though, need to retain some sense of perspective. As fans, we can easily become prone to motivated reasoning, to thinking that what is good for our team’s prospects is just good, all things considered. We can easily convince ourselves, therefore, that there is nothing in those latest allegations against our star striker or that supposed breaches of financial regulations by our club are simply an attempt by clubs to bring us down. Or that the people pumping money into our club are decent, reformist modernisers, so any talk of human rights abuses must be overblown.

But, we have a responsibility as fans not to become cheerleaders for our club’s owners. Don’t engage in culturally dubious sartorial tributes; don’t chant the name of your Russian owner during a minute’s applause for Ukraine; don’t jump onto social media or online comment spaces to shout down potential critique of your owners; don’t attend international games of the state that backs your club. The symbols and interests of the state that owns your club are not your symbols and interests — don’t take on the role of a footsoldier for the sportswashing exercise.

Newcastle fan in black and white Saudi themed dress, waves a Saudi flag

The bigger point here is that we never owe loyalty to the owners of our club. While it is often a tribal reflex for football fans to simply defend everything about our club from outside criticism, we have a responsibility to fight against that urge here. It is not disloyal to be open-minded in considering potential charges against the club’s owners — if there are ties to human rights abuse, it is not disloyal to acknowledge them. The club is a separate entity from its legal owners; we can continue to embrace one while honestly conceding deep concerns about the other. (This is, incidentally, something fans rarely have an issue with when it comes to bad owners: Manchester United fans have consistently maintained an antipathy towards the Glazers, in the same way the Newcastle fans were resistant for years towards Mike Ashley.)

How should other fans respond?

But sportswashing is not just a concern for fans of clubs owned by states with dubious records, but poses a challenge to the integrity of the sport as a whole. So how should broader concerns be responded to? I’m going to start by thinking, in particular, about the Saudi Pro League, as that was the main prompt for these posts.

One of the big things I think fans should aim to do is to avoid deepening their involvement or complicity with sportswashing exercises. While this makes cases like the takeover of a beloved club difficult, when it comes to the money being thrown at the Saudi Pro League, I think the response we should take is far easier. You (I presume, at least) have no existing ties to this competition or to clubs within it; don’t start to follow Saudi football. You were not interested in catching the Al-Hilal highlights last season, you didn’t follow Al-Ahli on the socials, you didn’t buy your child an Al-Nassr shirt, so don’t do any of those things now. Don’t watch the matches (which DAZN recently announced they would be showing), don’t care about what is happening there. The Pro League’s success cannot be based solely on players joining its clubs, if fans do not allow the attention to be sufficiently drawn to sustain it. Don’t extend your own involvement with Saudi sportswashing by dipping your toe in the water.

Broadening the above point, we should not allow sportswashers to simply become part of the landscape, a normal feature of football like any other team owner or league operator. They want us talking about the football and not the other stuff, the bad stuff; they want positive associations. So we have a responsibility to try to prevent that from happening. Don’t ever get bored of raising (or even just hearing) the human rights concerns. Players who choose to play in Saudi should be asked awkward questions. As should people connected with Man City and Newcastle United. Pundits and journalists should raise concerns on a regular basis. I have no issue with rival fans using chants, banners or social media to keep issues in the public eye.
I know that fans often look to football as an escape from the more serious concerns of life, so may not want to keep talking about or hearing about factors beyond the game. But, refusing to let our attention shift totally away from these broader factors is a price worth paying for preventing the sport from being entirely colonised by state money and the political concerns it brings.

Banner shown by Crystal Palace fans in 2021, criticising the Premier League for approving the Newcastle takeover

So far, the measures have mostly been about avoiding any further deepening of complicity, but what steps are there to actually reversing the issues we already face? The problem here is that there are few steps that are actually open to fans that are likely to make a real difference. The most important actions that could be taken to control the ability of state funds to shape football are only available to regulators, in the form of football authorities (FIFA, UEFA, individual football leagues and associations) or, in the case of involvement in European leagues, lawmakers in our parliaments.
What fans can do, though, is to make sure their opinions are heard by these regulators. Write to your local MP, sign petitions, support campaigns by human rights organisations, encourage others to do the same. These can feel like fruitless gestures. Most of us will also have little faith in either football’s governing bodies or our political representatives actually doing the right thing — most will be happy to roll the red carpet out to oil wealth so as to avoid scaring away potential investment. But if we are unhappy about the sport we love becoming little more than a PR tool for abusive regimes, changes to rules or new forms of regulation still offer our best hope for resistance.

So, what regulation is needed?

Preventing sportswashing in established European leagues feels far more feasible than stopping the Saudi Pro League from making giant offers to big name players (and, more likely than not, those players accepting those deals). But what sort of regulations should we be calling for?

One possibility would be that nothing new is required, all that is needed is for a more stringent application of existing rules. Leagues have ownership rules and typically retain the ability to block takeovers if they have doubts about prospective owners, which could easily be used as a mechanism to prevent European teams becoming used for sportswashing purposes. Indeed, in March of this year the Premier League added an explicit stipulation that proven involvement in human rights violations is a “disqualifying event” within the fit and proper persons test for owners. They have the power to stop abusers taking control of clubs.

However, there are several reasons why this is unlikely to prove effective as a guard against sportswashing, as the Newcastle takeover might be used to illustrate. The humans rights element was not present within the ownership tests at the point the takeover was concluded, but even if it had been, it seems hard to imagine a scenario where the takeover would have been blocked. The first issue is the difficulty of picking up on concerns about institutional links with a test that is designed to assess individuals. That is, it can be easy for all of the main individuals associated with an ownership bid — such as, in Newcastle United’s case, PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan — to personally be totally free of any evidence of connection to any form of human rights abuse. However PIF, as the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, possesses a direct institutional link between it and the Saudi state (irrespective of the supposed legally-binding assurances to the contrary received by the Premier League), which does therefore create an institutional implication between the money behind the Newcastle takeover and every single state official within Saudi Arabia, which therefore also carries a connection to widespread and well documented human rights abuses.

Yet, even if it were possible to find the evidence to link the specific figures involved to human rights abuse, the next potential pitfall is that acting upon it may be viewed, in political terms, as a potential embarrassment or strategic error. A high profile accusation of human rights abuse or the blocking of a strategically significant investment deal could be something that causes an upset that is felt to be a political or diplomatic problem. This actually appears to have been a worry for the UK Foreign Office during the complicated Newcastle takeover process, as the text of emails uncovered by The Athletic demonstrate:

It’s not for HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) to intervene in buying/selling football clubs. But HMG is not neutral about UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is a crucial and valuable relationship with an important partner, regionally and globally. The purchase of Newcastle United by KSA’s sovereign wealth fund would be a valuable boost to the relationship and signal of intent for further Saudi investment in the north east.

Reports also suggest Boris Johnson, possibly at the direct prompting of MBS, was active behind the scenes in pushing for the Newcastle takeover to go ahead.

Once it is a state seeking to purchase a football club, the matter becomes one of geopolitical significance, affecting trade and security relationships, and shaping far wider investment discussions. This makes it harder — although, it must be noted, far from impossible — to make an individual decision to oppose an ownership bid, without this action having much wider consequences.

Here we come to the crux of the matter: states are inherently political entities, so their involvement as football owners makes governance of the sport or enforcement of ethical rules (or, indeed, other rules such as Financial Fair Play that seek to protect a measure of competitive balance) that much harder. As well as turbo-charging the processes of commodification and financialisation that fans already worry are ruining the game, it creates the sort of complicity that these posts have highlighted as the key ethical concern — football becomes implicated within various state-led propaganda projects.

In some respects, with Manchester City and Newcastle already as precedents, we are already too late to stop this. However, I still think that if we want to find the most effective means to push back against sportswashing by keeping it out of European football, the easiest mechanism would be through the implementation of rules or laws that prevent the (either direct or indirect) ownership of football clubs by states or their sovereign wealth funds. This is something the admirable NUFC Against Sportswashing group have campaigned for, with their site providing a useful model letter for any fan who wishes to take action by contacting their political representative.

The other front in resistance to sportswashing in club football would be in striving to keep the Saudi Pro League outside and separate from top-level competitions. There are already whispers of attempts to secure a place for Saudi clubs within the Champions League but, should this be unsuccessful, you could easily imaging attempts to collaborate with disgruntled European giants (Barcelona and Real Madrid being prime candidates) on some form of breakaway rival, akin to the LIV Tour in golf.

Holding fast to a strict division between Saudi-backed competitions and established European leagues is vital for preventing the success of their sportswashing exercise. At present, although European clubs cannot match the spending power of the Saudis, they retain two major advantages in attracting the world’s best players: one is that their leagues are the most historically established, with storied clubs that are regarded as being the place where footballing careers and reputations are made; the second builds on this idea in that, therefore, European leagues are seen to provide the peak of club competition, capturing global attention to its fullest, so moving anywhere else will potentially be a hindrance to a player’s standing or their ability to continue to be selected for international competition. If, however, the divide were to become blurred — if you could take the money offered by Al-Hilal, yet still be seen regularly playing matches at the very highest level in the Champions League — any hope of preventing a Saudi takeover of top-level club football seems immediately diminished.

Do I have confidence that, when the time comes, regulators or legislators will prevent this? When there is a huge pile of investment money at stake in exchange for a place in the Champions League or for backing a new global competition format do I really expect them to hold out? I have doubts that they will but, for fans who wish to prevent the further complicity of our sport with abusive authoritarian regimes, doing whatever we can to hold the football authorities and our political representatives to account, pushing them to do the right thing, remains our best hope.