• Patrick Brischetto

Football - The Sport where Ignorance is Bliss

‘Ignorance is bliss’; a proverb that many of us unconsciously live by on a daily basis. When we visit the zoo, we choose to ignore the treatment of the animals raised in captivity; when buying a 24 pack of Chicken McNuggets, we choose to ignore the questionable ingredients list; and when we buy our expensive Nike shoes, we conveniently neglect to think of the fact that those shoes were probably produced in a sweatshop far from home by someone making less than a dollar a day.

As much as we all try to maintain our moral compass, on a regular basis many of us choose to adopt the mantra of blissful ignorance.

Football is no stranger to the minefield that is morality and ethics. As much as at its base level it is a simple game where 22 men or women kick a ball about on a pitch for 90 minutes, the global nature of the sport means that it inevitably becomes intertwined with politics, money and conflict.

The latest instance of football showing its more complex nature has occurred in recent weeks, as English Premier League club Newcastle United has become subject of a takeover bid by the PIF, short for Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. It is essentially the sovereign wealth fund of the country, worth a staggering $320 billion. At its head is the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin Salman.

The increasingly likely takeover has left Newcastle fans extremely excited at the prospect of becoming one of the world’s richest clubs, with the potential to fight for the biggest titles in football. However, some fans of other clubs and human rights organisations have voiced concerns over the background of the bidding company (or in this case country), in particular over the Crown Prince’s potential role in overseeing the club.

Amnesty UK have written to the Premier League asking them to block the proposed takeover, stating that the Premier League “risks becoming a patsy of those who want to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral [and] in breach of international law.”

There is no denying that Saudi Arabia has a checkered past. It is a country that is not accepting of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a country where women are not allowed many basic freedoms such as driving or attending sporting matches and a country where voicing any criticism of the government will result in almost certain imprisonment or death. In particular the 2018 kidnapping and murder of dissident journalist of Jamal Khashoggi has caused much uproar, as Saudi officials attempted to cover up the murder. It is believed that the Crown Prince himself ordered the assassination of Khashoggi.

Jamal Khashoggi in March 2018

However the case of Newcastle United is not a simple one; it is not like their current owner is a knight in shining armour. Mike Ashley, who purchased the club in 2007, has been criticised for his actions within and outside of Newcastle United. The club has stagnated badly, suffering two relegations and a lack of investment and ambition considering their stature. Outside the club ,with his sportswear business SportsDirect, Ashley has been criticised for his use of ‘zero-hour contracts’, which limit the rights of workers, and for attempting to keep his business open as essential as others closed during the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic.

It brings to question whether it is ‘morally acceptable’ to replace one owner who does not have the best interests of the club at heart and is no saint himself, with an owner who has the potential to transform the club on and off the pitch, but who is head of a country with an abysmal human rights record and who is perceived to be autocrat, who violently quells any opposition.

It is not the first time this conundrum has occurred in European football; Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) are two clubs who have experienced huge upturns in income and success under the ownership of the Sheikh Mansour of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family and the Qatar Sports Investment group respectively.

Sheikh Mansour with Man City coach Pep Guardiola, the Sheikh is worth $30 billion

Both countries have similar questionable human rights records, with the Kafala system that exploits migrant workers, often confiscating their passport to prohibit them from leaving the country whilst forcing them to work and live in deplorable conditions. Thousands in the Middle East die each year, most notably in Qatar when constructing the stadiums meant for the 2022 Fifa World Cup.

Fans of both clubs, whilst acknowledging the fallibility of their owners, have readily accepted the riches that has accompanied them under this ownership. And though from time to time these regimes are criticised by opposition fans and media, you are more likely to see the media heap praise on the football Pep Guardiola’s side has played in the past few years or on the meteoric rise of PSG’s Kylian Mbappe.

I’m not suggesting that fans of these clubs should actively protest against their club or renounce support just because their owners have ulterior motives for their ownership; because if I did that I would be a hypocrite. these occurrences are simply the consequences of both the prestige and political benefits of being involved in football in the 21st century as well as the importance and power of money in modern day football.

At the end of the days all football fans are consciously or unconsciously ignorant of clubs or issues away from our own. As Liverpool fans like myself bask in the glory of our brilliant season, praising the work of players, manager and owners alike; we ignore the stark contrast in the women’s team, suffering from a lack of funding in players and staff, stuck using inadequate facilities compared to other women’s clubs.

As football fans worry about which clubs will qualify for the Champions League or curse the fact that they can ‘only’ spend £60 million on players, we ignore the financial plight of lower league and women’s clubs, who may not even be around to see the end of the season when the Coronavirus cloud disappears.

And as we marvelled at the surprises and shocks of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, we ignored the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin, marred by LGBT discrimination, deaths of journalists and methods used to obtain that World Cup in the first place.

At the end of the day though, money is power and ignorance is bliss.

And how wonderful that bliss is.

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