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Britain’s Distasteful Soccer Sellout

In the northern English city of Newcastle upon Tyne, there is no Duomo di Firenze or Sagrada Familia standing tall, representing the city, its soul and spirit. There is no St. Paul’s Cathedral, Notre-Dame, or Basilica di San Marco. No, in Newcastle, the cathedral and castle are of secondary importance—so too the Roman wall built by the emperor Hadrian. In Newcastle, the soul of the city is its great, hulking, lopsided (and somewhat dilapidated) soccer stadium, St. James’s Park, which rises above the skyline right in the center of town.

Newcastle United's football stadium stands out in the city.

© Oli Scarff / AFP / Getty
Newcastle United’s football stadium stands out in the city.

And now that stadium, and the beleaguered soccer club that occupies it, is owned by Saudi Arabia—or at least its sovereign wealth fund.


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You might expect that this would be controversial in Newcastle. This is not any old country buying an English soccer club. It is a country run by the man the United States concluded to have ordered the dismembering of a journalist, a country conducting a brutal war in Yemen that is among the most barbarous in the world.

And yet, few in Newcastle seem to care. I mean, why should they? Their rivals in the English Premier League are already owned by some pretty unpleasant regimes or people: Manchester City is controlled by Abu Dhabi, and Chelsea by a Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin. What’s the point in turning down someone’s money if nobody else is? The fixer who facilitated the Saudi takeover has, incredibly, insisted that the Saudi state was not taking over Newcastle’s soccer club, but rather its sovereign wealth fund, which, the fixer said, genuinely cared about human rights. Both, of course, are run by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Beyond this cynical piece of performance art, however, the Newcastle United sale is emblematic of something far more fundamental and depressing about the state of Britain.

[Read: How America ruined soccer]

The English Premier League is a product conceived and raised in a different era, before the global financial crisis, Brexit, and Donald Trump. It is an example of open, European, capitalist Britain—a Britain having it all, and winning. The league is the richest and most-watched in the world, with investment and ownership rules that are far more open than its peers’, all while operating within a greater European structure but selling itself more aggressively to the world than any competitor. It’s rather like London’s financial sector before Brexit: the biggest player within a wider European network, but more global in its reach, culture, and investment than its rivals. Newcastle’s club will soon be able to compete with the best of European soccer because it will be richer. This is capitalism in action (or, at least, petro-fueled, state-rigged capitalism).

In fact, this model was rather like the Britain that emerged from Margaret Thatcher’s revolution of the 1980s. It is largely forgotten now, but this titan of conservatism did more than any other prime minister before or since to deepen Britain’s integration in Europe (save for Edward Heath, another Tory, who took Britain into the bloc in the first place). For Thatcher, the great goal was a single European market that Britain could grow rich from, and so she opened the country up to foreign investment from around the world, trumpeting it as the most economically liberal, safe, and business-friendly in Europe. For Japanese and American investors, Britain became the gateway to the European market.

Yet, what was the upshot? According to David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, Thatcher’s reforms did not lead to what she intended. She had wanted to resurrect British capitalism and its place in world…

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