Newcastle United flew for ‘warm weather’ training this week – but how long can manager Eddie Howe duck accusations of Saudi ‘sportswashing’?
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Today, Newcastle’s warm weather camp… sensible, or a deeply uncomfortable PR exercise?
“The Premier League has now received, what they say, legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club, but the consortium will, of course which 80% of that is the public investment fund of Saudi Arabia…”Sky Sports Football
Newcastle United’s takeover by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund is arguably the biggest football story of the season.
After Mike Ashley’s 14 year reign of mediocrity, there was understandable celebration amongst most fans at his departure.
And whatever the ethical nightmares posed by the Saudis’ human rights record, most, if not all, Newcastle supporters were just happy that the new ownership would inject hope, and more importantly, shed loads of cash, into the club.
And one of the first moves the new owners made was to replace the unpopular Steve Bruce as manager – with Eddie Howe.
Howe is, in the eyes of most, a more progressive, exciting coach – if not exactly world class.
He took Bournemouth from the League Two relegation zone to the Premier League, and was named Football League Manager of the Decade in 2015.
He’s smart, and speaks well. His sides have traditionally played attractive, attacking football.
But Howe knew what he was getting into as Newcastle’s first manager under the Saudi ownership.
And one thing he hasn’t been drawn on is any questions relating to Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights.
Here’s what he said in his first press conference in charge.
As I said earlier, my focus is football. Running the team, managing the players, that’s all I’m going to talk about and that’s all I’m going to think about.The Guardian
“My focus is football.”
Fair enough, you might think. It is, after all, the manager’s job to ensure the players are performing on the pitch, and everything else is secondary. But it will always be more complicated than that.
This week, Newcastle United used their mini-break in Premier League action to jump on a plane… to Saudi Arabia.
They flew to Jeddah for a ‘warm weather training camp’.
This isn’t unusual for football clubs to do – Arsenal have gone to Dubai for a training camp, and Manchester City were due to be going to Abu Dhabi, before a Covid outbreak caused them to abandon their plans.
But Newcastle, and Howe, knew that this trip would turn heads – because this is where the Newcastle takeover gets very messy.
Remember the club and its new owners insisted as the deal went through that it had an arms length relationship with the Saudi rulers. This is what Amanda Staveley, Newcastle’s director, described the deal back in October.
Well the consortium lead partner is PIF, and it’s an autonomous commercially driven investment fund, and it’s a great partner for Newcastle, I’m very honoured to work with them.Sky Sports News
Saudi Arabia faces global criticism over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, its draconian policies against LGBT people, against women, and over its military destruction of Yemen.
And Saudi Arabia has clearly chosen to use the glamour of sport as a way to market itself to the world. Newcastle are just the latest in line.
Once again, Howe didn’t address any accusations that the Saudi Public Investment Fund would use the trip as part of a ‘sportswashing’ campaign.
It’s a football decision. We’re doing it for the benefit of the players, the group, in our fight to stay in the division, and that’s my only thought. The facilities and everything around the trip are going to be first class, we will train, and we will train hard, and we will train in preparation for our next game, and that’s always going to be my only focus.The Guardian
“It’s a football decision.”
As part of their trip, Newcastle will play a friendly game against Saudi Pro League leaders Al-Ittihad, and Eddie Howe also said he ‘didn’t know’ if as part of the trip he’d be meeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the chairman of the Saudi Public Investment Fund and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Of course if he does, Howe can say goodbye to his hopes of sticking to football matters.
Newcastle’s website, announcing the trip, was obviously anticipating criticism.
It was at pains to mention that “A number of European clubs have taken advantage of the Middle East’s warmer climes for training camps in recent years… while Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao have all visited Saudi Arabia this month as part of the Supercopa de España competition.”
But is it that bad, or is it just part and parcel of where the Premier League has found itself?
Football club sponsors have agreements as part of their packages, and overseas trips can be hugely lucrative for clubs.
Arsenal’s deal with Visit Rwanda as their shirt sleeve sponsor includes the men’s and women’s teams making trips to visit the nation.
In 2008, Manchester United visited Saudi Arabia for a testimonial match for Sami Al-Jaber as part of a mid-season training camp, in a game that was hosted by the Saudi royal family. That game was reportedly worth one million pounds for United.
Amnesty International UK’s chief executive Sacha Deshmukh warned the trip could become a glorified PR exercise for the Saudi government, saying “it will prove once again that sportswashing human rights crimes is the name of the game here, not football.”
We should also say that Newcastle United are not alone in heading for Saudi Arabia.
The British boxer Anthony Joshua fought Andy Ruiz Junior in Jeddah in 2019, and had agreed to fight Tyson Fury in Saudi Arabia in 2021 before talks between the two boxers fell through.
Saudi Arabia also hosted their first Formula One Grand Prix last year.
But some do take a stand. The tennis player Andy Murray turned down a seven-figure sum to play in an exhibition match in the country, because of his concerns over their human rights record.
As for Eddie Howe, does he really need to be the person in the firing line to defend Saudi Arabia’s human rights record?
Perhaps not. Newcastle fans may legitimately say they had no choice in the last owner or the new owners.
But what now, is the duty for players, managers, and fans to speak up? ‘My focus is only on football’ feels like it is already a line that has worn very thin.
Today’s story was written by Andrew Butler, and produced by Gary Marshall.