Fans too divided to stop PIF, Qatar, private equity from conquering football’s soul…

Ian Watson
Manchester United fans display a 'no to Qatar' sign, next to an image of Newcastle fans in Saudi dress.

The European Super League was easy to derail when there was a common enemy. Now, there are too many vested interests to stop the game being picked off by those intent on serving their own needs…

We interrupt your oil state flag-shagging, transfer rumour doom-surfing and scrutiny-shifting finger-pointing to bring you a news flash: Football is fucked. Proper fucked.

And too many of us are standing by, some egging on the capitalists, superpowers and nation states coming for the beautiful game. The battle at elite level is probably already lost. Certainly while those of us with only an emotional stake – not billions in investments of varying degrees of transparency – in the sport we love squabble among ourselves over who among our number is behaving worse.

Have a look around. We have the battle for control at Manchester United and the very real possibility of one of the world’s grandest clubs falling into Qatari hands. That really should worry you, whether you’re a United fan or not. Those that are United supporters, and even some of their former players and ‘legends’, are flinging sh*t at each other, with the fanbase horribly, perhaps irreparably divided. The rough battle lines: match-going fans generally seem opposed to state ownership, while the shoutiest E-Reds whore themselves out for the price of a dive into Sheikh Jassim’s Scrooge McDuck pit. Assuming it is actually his. Which it probably isn’t.

Those waving their Qatar flags in their online bios only want United – the poor, plucky six-billion-pound underdogs – to be able to keep up. With what? Their all-conquering Treble-winning neighbours, who have swept all before them on the pitch before they attempt to do the same in the courts to prove, actually, they weren’t cheating 115 times. Still, despite all the shit we’re currently wading through, at least we have a few more years of that to enjoy.

Then there’s Chelsea. They have serious concerns about staying within FFP restrictions, which probably ought to have been a consideration before they spaffed all that money on shiny new players. How lucky they are to catch the Saudi state on a trolley dash. The connection between the PIF, who now control the biggest clubs in their country, and Clearlake, Chelsea’s majority owners, is just a coincidence. Nothing to see here, lads. Quick, look over there, there’s a journalist holding your club to account but absolutely no one else’s.

When Saudi was being painted as the world’s most lavish retirement village for millionaire footballers, there seemed little to fear in the changing landscape. We’ve seen it all before from China. But Monday morning brought news of Ruben Neves, a sublime player in his prime, heading not to Barcelona, Arsenal or Manchester United, but Al-Hilal. That feels like a far bigger kick in the tits and a not-so-subtle hint of what’s to come.

Chelsea, Clearlake and PIF aren’t arsed about subtlety. The deal to ship three, four players from Stamford Bridge to Saudi is as brazen as they come. What next? Boston Red Sox sign Darwin Nunez? Harry Maguire traded to Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Competent governance might stop such rampant rule-stretching, but Premier League chairmen – while they might be turkeys – won’t vote for Christmas. An independent regulator is needed now – someone, anyone who can at least identify the links between private equity, nation-state funding and Premier League club ownership.

The CSL outgrew China swiftly and the authorities stopped such exuberance with a raft of rules and regulations. But the Saudis won’t stop. Signings or executions. And it’s important to recognise the correlation. Everyone does; many just choose to ignore it.

It’s all so sodding grim, even before you consider all the season-ticket price hikes in a cost-of-living crisis. It seems like there is little we can do about it. And what we can, we almost certainly won’t.

The last time the landscape looked so bleak, when the greedy six formed part of the dirty dozen who attempted to get the European Super League off the ground, there was a common enemy and fans, some players and the media all maintained a united front with governing bodies to ensure the idea was killed almost instantly.

The European Super League has been given the green light.

This time, the threat is multi-pronged and there are too many vested interests to adequately protect the game as we know it.

There is little faith in the clubs and authorities to put the greater good above their own ends. The blame should not be pinned on the players. Some of these lads, already millionaires, are still being offered life-changing money. The kind of salaries that could secure generations of your family’s security. Us punters, safe in the knowledge we’ll never have to ponder the prospect in reality, can fantasise about turning our noses up at such proposals but until we’re being offered the world on a shitty stick, we don’t know how it feels to be in that position.

The conflict of interest is too great to consider clubs at the very highest level as gatekeepers for the game. They showed their true colours around the ESL, which served as proof that simply existing as a superpower isn’t enough to ensure you remain one. The vast majority of them, given half the chance, would drop to their knees for a Sheikh, even if he just wanted to take a few of their depreciating, salary-sapping stars.

The truly disheartening thing, though, is the number of fans prepared to prostitute themselves in a similar way. Sportswashing works. We’ve seen it at City, Newcastle, Chelsea, PSG. Just a pre-wash is enough for some Manchester United supporters to pledge allegiance to Qatar.

What can we do? Alone – fuck all. There are many long-standing United fans currently wrestling with what they might do if their club becomes a pawn in Qatar’s power grab. Some will walk away. For a large number, it won’t be the same. And others will crack on and attempt to make the best of it. Good luck to all of them.

Those fans who are prepared to give up season tickets, pack in going to the match, are being waved on their way with an almost Brexit send-off. You lost, we won. Cry more. The same would happen at most clubs, because for too many supporters the prospect of gaining ground on rivals or burning them off with oil money is too great to pass up for the price of the game’s soul.

Fair fucks to the sportswashing states – they’ve learned from the ESL dozen’s mistake of giving irate fans one entity to gang up against. But divide and conquer is a piece of piss when there’s enough in the war chest for a big-name signing.

Supporters here can’t control what goes down in the Saudi Pro-League – nor should they want to. Inevitably, one day soon the PIF four will be gracing the Champions League and that’s theirs and UEFA’s business.

But with clubs and the Premier League seemingly unable and unwilling to ring-fence our domestic league – the government too – supporters bodies are the only hope. Or they would be if many weren’t fighting among themselves.

Fucked, I tell you.

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