A Saudi-led consortium is in advanced talks regarding a proposed takeover of Newcastle United. Such ownership models are common in England's Premier League, but would it work in Germany?
Professional football returned in Germany last weekend but England's Premier League is still on hold, as the country continues to battle the spread of the coronavirus.
However, for one club in particular, the break has brought little respite. After 13 years under the ownership of the unpopular Mike Ashley, a British retail billionaire, Newcastle United are reportedly on the brink of a takeover led by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia, pending Premier League approval.
Ashley purchased Newcastle in 2007 for around £134 million (€149m, $164m) but, despite initial popularity, his ownership of the club has since been the subject of protests of varying degrees of intensity. Under Ashley's stewardship, interference in the first-team squad and transfer policy, as well as a lack of investment in the club's infrastructure, have seen the 'Magpies' relegated twice.
Now, with the team currently 13th in the league, the end is finally in sight. Unfortunately for Newcastle fans, however, the identity of the potential new owners has created an even bigger quandary.
Under the terms of the proposed €350 million deal, the PIF, which is chaired by Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, would acquire an 80% stake in the club.
For the 34-year-old Saudi Crown Prince, known as MBS, the takeover of Newcastle represents the latest in a series of strategic moves in global sports as his country attempts to reduce its dependence on oil and diversify its economy.
Saudis accused of 'sportswashing'
But human rights activists and experts have also accused Saudi Arabia of "sportswashing" – the practice of laundering a nation's global image through the prism of sports to gloss over more problematic issues. In the case of Saudi Arabia, this concerns what Amnesty International describes as "egregious human rights violations," including the repression of women's rights and 146 beheadings this year alone, not to mention accusations of war crimes in the civil war in Yemen.
In October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose criticism of MBS regularly appeared in the Washington Post, was brutally murdered inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul by a 15-man Saudi hit-squad. The CIA concluded that the assassination had most likely been ordered by MBS, a finding the Crown Prince rejects as "flawed," although he has officially taken responsibility for Khashoggi's death.
Earlier this month, Khashoggi's fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, penned an open letter to Newcastle United supporters, urging them to oppose the Saudi takeover of their club.
"You as the loyal fans have a big say in this," she wrote. "I implore you all to unite to protect your beloved club and city from the Crown Prince and those around him. They are making this move not to help you and not with your best interests in mind but solely to serve themselves."
After 13 years, however, the desire among Newcastle fans to see the back of Ashley appears to outweigh any misgivings about their club being used as a marketing vehicle for a repressive foreign dictatorship. According to a recent poll by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST), 97% of those surveyed said they would be in favor of the takeover.
Newcastle United supporters are happy to see the back of Mike Ashley - but they still don't have a say
What's more, the tenor among Newcastle fans is that, despite Cengiz's plea, they don't actually have a say in the transaction at all. Unlike in Germany, where the 50+1 rule stipulates that a club's members retain a majority stake in their club, thus preventing majority takeovers by external investors, Newcastle United belongs entirely to Ashley who is free to sell it to whoever he wants.
"We feel powerless," Thomas, a Newcastle supporter from "Wor Flags" (local slang for "our flags"), an independent fan group which creates displays and choreographies at St. James' Park, told DW. "In England, the fans don't have any say in their football clubs. Clubs are simply passed around to whoever has the most money."
"Club owners used to be factory owners from down the road who might have had a more vested interest in the local area," adds group member Chris. "Now, they come from all over the globe. Football has been taken so far away from the people."
For James Montague, an author who has written several books on football club ownership and fan culture, the situation described by Thomas and Chris is the "natural progression when the links between clubs and their fans are so completely eroded."
"In Germany, you have a system where the fans have a say," he tells DW. "But in England, fans have been treated like customers for so long that they're now completely excluded from the process. They are powerless."
"Non-negotiable! 50+1 stays!" Stuttgart supporters are among the German fans who are fiercely protective of the 50+1 rule
German football and the 50+1 rule
For many German football fans, particularly those active supporters who regularly attend matches, the proposed Saudi takeover of Newcastle is precisely why attempts to modify or abolish the 50+1 rule are met with such vehement opposition.
"The 50+1 rule is the final regulation preventing more and more money from flowing into the game," says Manuel, a spokesperson for the "50+1 stays!" campaign and supporter of a Bundesliga club. "I like being a fan of my club because I'm a member; I'm part of the club. I don't think I'd like to be part of a club if I knew that it actually belonged to a rich individual, a company or a country with geopolitical objectives."
Even with the 50+1 rule in place, German clubs are not completely immune but, for many supporters, being loyal and critical need not be mutually exclusive traits. Bayern Munich fans, for example, are regularly critical of their clubs' sponsorship dealings with Qatar. In January, they organized an event titled "Qatar, Human Rights and FC Bayern: hands out, mouths shut?" at which they discussed their club's links with the Middle Eastern state.
"There is a space within German football for fans to have their say, which is a result of collective memory developed over the years," explains Montague, referring to the historic difference between club ownership in Germany and England. While in England, clubs were originally set up as limited companies and have always belonged to individual owners, German clubs were members' associations, and largely remain so to this day.
"That's over 100 years of a different political and cultural system of running the game. It's a mindset which is drilled into German football, and that has a massive impact on how fans view their own power within the game."
'This is still our club, our city, our people'
In Newcastle, members of 'Wor Flags' have been involved in protests against Mike Ashley for years. This season, 15 of them have given up their season tickets and are boycotting games, refusing to create any more displays. But their influence is limited.
"We would love to have a 50+1-style model in England," insists Chris. "As a fan group, we look across at the continent for inspiration for our displays and we would love to be able to have a say in a club and influence how the club interacts with the community. That has to be the aim for every football fan.
"But football in England has become a spectator business. Television has taken a lot of our influence away. Most of the money comes from the fan sat on the couch, not the fan in the stadium, leaving us powerless. And not only in Newcastle."
The coronavirus crisis has revealed just how reliant German football clubs are on TV money and the debate over the 50+1 rule in Germany has resurfaced.
With some within the game calling for its abolition, Montague is concerned about its future.
"It’s a classic case of disaster capitalism," he said. "The discussion was already taking place before the crisis. But once that dam breaks, there's no going back. The 50+1 model in Germany is the last hope for any sort of independent fan culture in professional football in Europe."
In the Premier League, that ship seems to have already sailed and in Newcastle, Thomas and Chris don't see the point in protesting against the Saudi takeover, even if they could. Instead, they want to focus on things they can control and things which are important to them.
"If we felt that the Saudis were abusing women's rights, we would consider a display featuring a female fan in a black and white top," they suggest.
"That wouldn't necessarily be an attack on Saudi Arabia, but it would be an expression of what we stand for in Newcastle. We might not own it, but this is still our club, our city, our people, and supporters who are female, Muslim, Jewish, gay, whatever, are all welcome at our Newcastle United."