Football: Newcastle fans rejoice at takeover talk but Saudi investment raises questions

A fan displays a banner in reference to Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley during a match against Arsenal. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Newcastle United fans have long dreamed of ridding the club of owner Mike Ashley, but a potential £300 million (S$500 million) takeover backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund presents fans on Tyneside with a different dilemma.

Retail tycoon Ashley has been deeply unpopular in his 14 years in charge of Newcastle, during which time the club have twice been relegated from the Premier League before bouncing back into English football's lucrative top flight.

The Magpies are again floundering near the bottom of the table, without a win in their opening seven league games of the season.

But an influx of Saudi cash could herald a new era for one of England's most passionately supported clubs, who can boast attendances often above 50,000 despite decades of failure.

According to reports, 80 per cent of the deal would be funded by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, with British financier Amanda Staveley's firm providing 10 per cent and the other 10 per cent coming from British billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben.

Fans are keen for the US$408-million deal - which collapsed at its first attempt last year - to go through but Amnesty International has warned it represents "sportswashing" of the Gulf kingdom's human rights record.

Ashley blame

The Toon Army has long blamed Ashley for not investing enough to improve the team.

"There was a famous banner a couple of years ago that read: 'We don't demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries.' For the last 13 years we haven't had a club that has tried," a spokesman for the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) previously told AFP.

"Under this ownership, there has been no ambition, effectively no investment and no hope for a sporting entity that hasn't been a sporting entity. It's been there to survive and nothing more."

The actions of Ashley have also done little to win over supporters.

He briefly handed his company, Sports Direct, naming rights to the club's St James' Park stadium in 2011, while there have been several disputes over ticket prices and refunds for matches played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The prospect of deep-pocketed owners at a time when many other clubs will be cutting back due to the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 is an alluring one for the fans.

A recent NUST poll found 94 per cent of supporters were in favour of the takeover.

Newcastle fans have long blamed owner Mike Ashley (above) or not investing enough to improve the team. PHOTO: REUTERS

Manchester City's run of 13 major trophies since an Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008 transformed their fortunes is an example of the difference that wealthy Middle Eastern owners can make.

Prior to 2011, City had not won a major honour since 1976. Newcastle's barren run stretches back to 1969.

The controversial Newcastle takeover bid hit the rocks last year after an outcry from Qatar-based beIN Sports, a major television rights holder of the Premier League, which was banned by Saudi Arabia in 2017.

Tensions between the states have eased significantly and Saudi's ban on beIN is set to be lifted, with Riyadh also seeking to settle Qatar's US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) arbitration claim over pirate broadcasts to Saudi audiences by the BeoutQ network.

But there are already searching questions again being asked about the proposed deal, with Amnesty urging the Premier League to consider Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

The country faced international condemnation following the brutal murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate three years ago.

Turkish writer Hatice Cengiz (right), fiancee of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, poses next to a portrait of Khashoggi after unveiling it on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on Oct 1, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

In February, US intelligence released a report that accused Prince Mohammed bin Salman of approving the murder. The Saudis strongly rejected that assessment.

"Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football," Amnesty UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said in a statement.

"Saudi ownership of St James' Park was always as much about image management for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his government, as it was about football."

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