The scenes that unfolded outside St James' Park yesterday were bizarre in the extreme. Fans sporting Saudi Arabia flags, donning tea towels on their heads, with one man telling Sky Sports that this day was a better one than when his child was born.
Welcome to modern football, a world in which a brutal regime's takeover of a Premier League club is met not with anger, but instead an outpouring of excitement and relief.
A matter of months after the European Super League debacle, a venture that various media outlets and personalties branded as a new low for the greed present in the sport, many are now celebrating the Saudi Arabian takeover of Newcastle United as some sort of victory for the common football fan.
The new regime will spend money, something the previous one did not do (at least not the kind of money the fans wanted them to spend. Plenty of money was actually spent, including 40 million on Joelinton). They will also engage with the supporters, with the charm offensive in overdrive since confirmation of the takeover was confirmed. 'We have our club back' was the message most commonly spouted by Newcastle fans.
In many ways, you can understand why they would be excited by the prospect of somebody pumping money into their club and promising them the chance to compete at football's very top table.
It’s gone off again at St James’ park pic.twitter.com/W1yK6HGbAL
— Josh Halliday (@JoshHalliday) October 7, 2021
Of course, the reality is far more nuanced than that.
Saudi Arabia have a long history of human rights violations, especially in relation to women and those in the LGBTQ+ community. Amnesty International have labelled their buying of Newcastle United as a 'clear attempt' at sportswashing, the method of softening their image by associating themselves with a sporting entity.
It is clearly already working. Some Newcastle supporters are already leaping to defend the country's human rights record, with an even larger portion believing that the politics 'should be left out of sport'.
Forging opinions such as that one are the exact purpose of this venture. Make no mistake about it, the wheels are very much in motion.
Alan Shearer's column in The Athletic this morning is just the latest example of such a dynamic at play.
Yesssssssss. We can dare to hope again 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 🙋🏼♂️⚫️⚪️⚫️⚪️⚫️⚪️ #NUFC
— Alan Shearer (@alanshearer) October 7, 2021
A club legend and boyhood supporter, you perhaps would have hoped that he could see beyond the dollar signs and realise what is actually happening to his club. Instead, he seems to see the Saudi Arabian regime as the lesser of two evils in comparison to Mike Ashley.
After spending the vast majority of the article talking about how momentous of an occasion this is for Newcastle, and while accepting that this seemed to be a case of sportswashing, this was his attempt at addressing the human rights shaped elephant in the room:
Football puts us in difficult positions. And it can make hypocrites of us, too. We hate that tough-tackling bastard who plays for another club, right until the moment he signs for us and he becomes our bastard. VAR is a joke and then our team gets a lucky, baffling call and it’s the best thing ever!
When it comes to bad behaviour or bad or good decisions, we tip-toe through a minefield. We don’t care about the others. We only care about us...
What I find harder to accept is that Newcastle fans should be asked to defend something they have no control over... We haven’t been consulted. We haven’t had a choice. What we do have is a responsibility to go into it with open eyes.
If Saudi is your line in the sand, then I accept, respect and completely understand it. But there have been other lines, too. Maybe it was Russian involvement in the Premier League, China or Abu Dhabi. Maybe it was Americans using a club’s own money to help complete their purchase of it.
Qatar is hosting a World Cup in just over a year’s time. Saudi Arabia invests in all kinds of businesses in this country and a variety of sports worldwide.
It was only a matter of time before it turned to football...
I want my club to represent my city and my region and not some distant, authoritarian regime, but it looks like the second thing is opening the way to the first. Maybe it’s just our go.
That last line is perhaps the most telling of all. Newcastle United wanted 'their club back' so badly, that it seems as though the majority are willing to overlook every other aspect to ensure that it was achieved. Any criticisms of the takeover have been met with accusations of 'jealousy' or various versions of whataboutery.
It is not only a sad indictment of modern sport, but also a hugely dangerous (and increasingly common) precedent.
The goal of 'keeping politics out of sport' is one thing, but that becomes impossible when the very aim of this project is to link the two. That can be a tough concept to accept if fans don't want to look beyond who their club can potentially sign in the upcoming transfer window.
The worry now is that the difficult conversation around Saudi Arabia's involvement in the Premier League will fade over time, becoming accepted as the norm much in the way it has with Abu Dhabi and Manchester City.
Many Newcastle fans are already longing for that day. In the end, isn't that what this project is all about?