Qatar, human rights lobby mesmerize English football in Newcastle saga
“Never say never” was the key phrase from Michael Ashley, owner of Newcastle United football club.
He was reacting to a dramatic statement late on Thursday from the consortium — led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) — that had agreed a £300 million ($394 million) deal with him in April to buy the 128-year-old club. The buyers had finally had enough, after months of delay by the English football authorities, and were pulling out of the bid.
That seemed to be that, but closer analysis of the eight-month saga suggests that far from being all over, it is just entering a new phase.
Ashley went on to insist that he remained “100 percent committed” to the deal. It was also pretty apparent from conversations with PIF officials and with Amanda Staveley, the entrepreneur who put the consortium together, that it is still much in play.
In reality, the consortium withdrawal statement changes little in the takeover equation. Ashley wants to sell. The consortium — which includes UK magnates the Reubens brothers, Staveley and the PIF — wants to buy. The PIF still wants to inject hundreds of millions of pounds into the club and the economy of England’s northeast.
What is holding up the deal is the incomprehensible intransigence of the English Premier League (EPL), the football authority that has to give its approval, and in particular its CEO Richard Masters.
The EPL and Masters have been given all the documentation they need to reach a decision on the takeover. In April, they also gave firm assurances that it would be looked at and approved in roughly a month.
The COVID-19 crisis, which halted football in the UK and most of Europe, understandably distracted them. But what really mesmerized Masters was the multimillion-dollar lobby that swung into predictable action when it looked like the deal was going to be cleared.
Human rights organizations that are always quick to attack Saudi Arabia were reinforced by Qatari broadcaster BeIN Sports, which had a longstanding grievance over broadcast rights in the Kingdom and elsewhere in the Middle East. Between them, they got enough supporters in the UK political establishment to lean on Masters.
The EPL dithered and dallied for so long that in the end, the Saudi-led consortium decided to break the logjam by formally pulling out of the deal. As things stand, there are few winners emerging as a result of the EPL’s chicanery.
Some of the EPL’s maneuverings appear deliberately aimed at frustrating the deal. They wanted assurances that the PIF is an independent organization within the Saudi investment scene. This they received in the form of a letter from the highest economic authority in the Kingdom, which Masters then ignored.
They dithered and dallied for so long that in the end, the Saudi-led consortium decided to break the logjam by formally pulling out of the deal.
As things stand, there are few winners emerging as a result of the EPL’s chicanery.
Ashley loses £300 million that his other businesses badly need in the pandemic downturn. The football club and city of Newcastle lose a minimum of £250 million pledged by the PIF as investment in the team and the regional economy.
Fans lose the chance to replace Ashley, whom they accuse of failing to invest in their club’s potential. There is no other viable bidder waiting in the wings.
But perhaps the biggest loser is the EPL itself. Masters misses out on the biggest single cash injection ever into the game, at a time when English football’s finances are under strain as never before from the pandemic.
The EPL managed to salvage something from the 2019-20 season by staging games in empty stadiums, avoiding having to repay hundreds of millions of pounds to TV broadcasters. But it is hard to imagine those same broadcasters, including BeIN Sports, ever bidding the same eye-watering amounts again.
This is where the EPL has finally and conclusively shown itself to be short-sighted to the point of negligence.
Sources close to the consortium told Arab News that Saudi Arabia offered to discuss the TV rights package, in effect acting as the “underwriter” when the EPL comes to renegotiate the deal in 2022. That offer was rejected, with no reason given.
If the deal gets back on track, there is no guarantee that such generosity will still be on the table.
That is the corner into which the EPL has painted itself with its craven submission to Qatar and the human rights lobby.
Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai