By Howard Green

Professional football has been hyper-commercialised by every means available. Billion pound deals between private entities to secure TV rights, ridiculous sponsorship schemes that see clubs partner with the most strange or dangerous of companies, and ever-rising ticket prices turning the sport into an occasional daytime activity for the well-off rather than dedicated working-class fans. But there are still instances of defiance, of fans and players organising and speaking out against the commercial elements of the sport.

Recently, due to the absence of sport under lockdown and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, we have seen significant collective organising and individual player action. Community organisations like Fans Supporting Foodbanks put aside city rivalries in order to help those in need, and have continued to work hard during the pandemic. Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford made headlines by putting pressure on the Government to extend free school meals vouchers for poorer children through the summer holidays. After a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner was flown over Burnley’s home ground Turf Moor, Burnley’s captain Ben Mee condemned the banner and its message before he had even left the pitch. The culprit of the banner was protesting against the formal support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the Premier League and Championship, which has seen all players take a knee before every game and has replaced player names on kits with ‘Black Lives Matter’, unprecedented actions which came as a surprise to many, given the leagues’ preference to avoid addressing political issues in the past. Although each individual act is small, we must support all sportspeople who use their platforms to act against all kinds of inequality, as it sets a future precedent that small-scale activism in every field is necessary to achieve larger change.

what do wealthy autocratic regimes have to gain from investing in British sport?

However there are issues with football’s commercialism that fans, players, staff and commentators still often fall short of criticising. The ownership of football clubs has become a way for despotic regimes to further their influence and compete with other nations in proxy conflicts. The past 20 years of British and European football has seen huge monetary growth, with a good portion of new investment coming from countries with despicable human rights records, such as Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. But what do wealthy autocratic regimes have to gain from investing in British sport?

Perhaps the most obvious example of what investing in football can do for a country’s reputation is Russia’s investment in FC Schalke 04. During Gerhard Schröder’s chancellorship, from 1998 to 2005, Germany made commitments to reduce its coal and nuclear power output. This was an opportunity for Gazprom, the Russian natural gas company majority-owned by the Putin government, to expand into western Europe, but they faced some significant obstacles. Russia has pipelines across eastern Europe supplying many former socialist states with natural gas, but those countries often charge them huge transport fees. To avoid this, the German and Russian governments agreed on a new pipeline project known as the ‘Nord Stream’, to run under the Baltic Sea from near Saint Petersburg to Northern Germany, in September of 2005. Schröder lost the Chancellorship to Angela Merkel in November 2005, but the pipeline still seemed to be going ahead. However, five months later when Schröder became the head of the Nord Stream project for Gazprom, allegations of corruption arose after it was discovered that Schröder had agreed secret loan deals with Gazprom while still in office. Desperate to direct attention away from its misdealings, Gazprom looked to invest in a more PR-friendly project.

Fußballclub Gelsenkirchen-Schalke 04 e. V., commonly known as Schalke, is a Bundesliga football club based in Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr Valley. Around the time of the Nord Stream project, the club had fallen into severe debt and were stagnating in the bottom half of Germany’s top league. Fortunately for Gazprom, the Ruhr Valley is Germany’s and Western Europe’s central hub for energy, with many cross-continental pipelines running through the area. Gazprom agreed a sponsorship deal of 125 million Euros with Schalke in October 2006. Pictures of Vladimir Putin and then-Schalke director Klement Tennis holding the new Schalke shirt with a Gazprom logo emblazoned on it were broadcast across German media. Overnight, headlines of corruption changed to praise for Gazprom’s significant investment in a German cultural institution. Since then, Schalke have enjoyed moderate success, making fans complacent towards its new sponsors’ wrongdoings. The Nord Stream pipeline was completed in 2012.

The pre-match display at the 2007 friendly between Schalke and Zenit St Petersburg, another club sponsored by Gazprom. Credit: Mocky04/Wikimedia Commons

Foreign governments have also made similar investments in English football clubs. Sheikh Mansour, one of the princes of the United Arab Emirates, a country with a terrible human rights record, acquired Manchester City FC after it fell into debt in 2008. Despite Mansour never watching a match at the Etihad Stadium, his money has propelled Manchester City to become one of the most successful football clubs in modern British history. Similarly, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, a fund set up by the Saudi government with taxpayer money in order to diversify its economic interests for a post-oil future, is currently bidding for the majority stake in Newcastle United FC. Saudi Arabia has faced significant criticism in recent years due to its brutal war in the Yemen and the assassination of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Many have argued that the Newcastle takeover bid is an attempt by the Saudi regime to smooth over its reputation in Britain, and it has been condemned by Amnesty International and Khashoggi’s fiance Hatice Cengiz, among others. Both the UAE and the Saudi governments will argue that investments in football are just means of diversifying their economy, but nonetheless their actions raise the question of whether it should be acceptable for the agents of governments with such appalling human rights records to be involved in British football.

From some people’s point of view, football fans can enjoy the benefits of footballing investment at the expense of these regimes. Many of those who support the acquisition of Newcastle United by the Saudi state point out that investment in the club would bring other kinds of investment into the city, and bring joy to its people. But lines must be drawn. Footballing success should never come at the price of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses, corruption or natural destruction.

Official channels have proven inadequate to address these ethical concerns – the Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors’ test does not contain ethical dimensions. If the status quo on club ownership is going to change, then that change must come from players and fans. Much like with racial inequality, the issues that have risen out of the pandemic and any other type of injustice in society, fans must come together and organise against it. Football fans have previously demonstrated their willingness to boycott games due to poor results or financial mismanagement, so why should the issue of human rights and the international political game be any different? Fans and players must come together and organise on this issue, just as they have on issues of racial injustice and the pandemic crisis, or football in this country and across the world will simply become a geopolitical pawn.

Featured image credit: robin reynolds

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