Alan Hubbard

Tottenham Hotspur fans arriving for their match at Newcastle United on Sunday must have thought they had wandered into a Saudi souk by mistake. Scores of male home supporters dressed in Arabian clobber thronged in a typecast entrance to St James' Park selling price souvenir shirts, scarves and programmes while dancing gigs of joy.

Some obviously had hired fancy dress for the occasion but the majority simply draped a tea towel over their head secured by a headband.

Funnily enough - ironically even - there was not a Burka in sight and had there been anyway one wondered whether the women would have been required to follow the old Saudi custom and walk the required 10 paces behind the menfolk.

All was in celebration of the takeover of the football club by a consortium headed by Saudi Arabian interests. Although Spurs were to prick the bubble of delight with a 3-2 victory the euphoria remained largely unabated. No doubt they were celebrating in Riyadh too, for finally the Saudis had got a foothold - quite literally - on the Beautiful Game. And at £305 million ($420 million/€360 million), the sum handed to previous owner Mike Ashley, boss of Sports Direct, you might argue it was something of a snip.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the morality of the move, there is no doubt that Newcastle, one of football's sleeping giants, has been stirred from its slumber and becomes top of the league among football’s rich list.

The Saudi sheikh-up is now the talk of the Toon and already the repercussions have seen the departure of manager Steve Bruce, just 17 days after the deal was announced. Newcastle was the 10th club to be managed by the 60-year-old former Manchester United defender, who was not popular with Newcastle fans who chanted "Brucie out" as a reminder to the new owners during Sunday’s (October 17) game.

Bruce now says he is likely to retire from football and with a rumoured payoff of around £8 million ($11 million/€9.5 million), who can blame him?

Campaigners used Newcastle's game with Tottenham to highlight alleged crimes of the Saudi Arabian regime ©Getty Images
Campaigners used Newcastle's game with Tottenham to highlight alleged crimes of the Saudi Arabian regime ©Getty Images

The former England and Liverpool star Steven Gerrard, such a success at Glasgow Rangers, is believed to be favourite to take over from Bruce, who had been in charge since July 2019.

The Magpies, as Newcastle are known, have had a winless start to this season’s Premier League campaign, and after their first eight matches are second from bottom of the table, not a situation the Saudis would wish to tolerate for long. So it will be interesting to see how a nation built on a feudal ruthlessness copes with its latest addition to sportswashing in an attempt to get a sceptical world to view it in a new light.

Already the daggers are out, so to speak, in much of the British media, citing Saudi Arabia’s "Murderous regime" and numerous violations of human rights and atrocities culminating in the gruesome killing of the critical Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which has been linked to alleged instructions from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Popular in royal circles in the United Kingdom, he is believed to be instrumental in the Newcastle deal.

However, football’s ruling bodies have somehow conveniently satisfied themselves that the game’s newest - and richest - custodians are sufficiently distanced from authoritarian rulers.

Especially as money now seems to be no object. Bank vaults have been opened in the desert kingdom with the loads of cash now available for sport since the £200 million ($275 million/€235 million) Tyson Fury-Anthony Joshua showdown which was headed for Riyadh has become more a mirage rather than a mega-fight.

It is easy to see why we are so uneasy about this move, which ironically in view of Saudi attitudes towards females, has 48-year-old British woman, Amanda Staveley, as joint head of the consortium. Of the scores of countries I have visited in the course of sports journalism none have been as unappetising as Saudi Arabia. Not even those once behind the Iron Curtain or South Africa during the dark days of apartheid run it close.

The wise option may be to remain deeply suspicious while reserving judgement on a deal that unavoidably leaves a worryingly pungent smell in the nostrils.

Newcastle fans have been asked not to dress traditional Arabic clothing moving forward ©Getty Images
Newcastle fans have been asked not to dress traditional Arabic clothing moving forward ©Getty Images

Under Ashley’s hapless ownership, Newcastle were never United, remaining a club steeped only in pre-Premier League glories. It is fair to say that if this situation dramatically changes for the better and Newcastle are up there with the Liverpool, Chelsea and the Manchester clubs as well as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, few questions will be asked by the majority of Geordie fans.

In any case the top half of the Premiership is awash with dodgy overseas money so why, they will argue, should their beloved Toon be denied access to those Saudi bank vaults overflowing with the profits from oil fields? And supposedly footballers’ legs are a more ethical purchase from the UK than, er, arms.

Alas, Saudi Arabia is wealthy enough to do both.

True, pockets of libertarianism are conveniently springing up just outside Riyadh and in the not unpleasant coastal city of Jeddah whenever a major event, such as a big fight, a Grand Prix, a golf or tennis tournament can be hung out on the sportswashing line.

Some may argue that at least Saudi is making an effort to drag itself into the 21st century, although there is still a hell of a long way to go before an Olympic Games or football World Cup can be more than a doodle on a blank sheet of notepaper.

Yet who, say, less than half a century ago could've dreamed of South Africa cleansing up its image sufficiently enough to host the World Cup?