For what it’s worth, the report came from The Sun, the English tabloid that takes broad liberties with truth. Mohammed Bin Salman, the controversial crown prince of Saudi Arabia implicated in the murder of Washington Post columnist and United States permanent resident Jamal Khashoggi, was supposedly trying to buy Manchester United from the American Glazer family for an astounding $5 billion.
The Florida-based mall tycoons – who saddled United with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to finance the purchase back in 2005, draining as much as $1.3 billion from the club – would stand to make a profit of almost $3 billion on their investment.
In short order, Saudi Arabia’s minister for media tweeted that a meeting with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia had been arranged not to negotiate a takeover of the club, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, but to discuss a possible sponsorship.
Reports claiming that HRH the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman intends on buying @ManUtd are completely false. Manchester United held a meeting with @PIFSaudi to discuss sponsorship opportunity . No deal has been materialized.
— تركي الشبانه (@TurkiAlshabanah) February 17, 2019
Curiously, club co-owner Avram Glazer had pulled out of an investment forum in Saudi Arabia just four months earlier amid fallout from the Khashoggi murder, which sparked international outrage. Even back then, in October, The Sun had been speculating about a possible Saudi takeover of the storied Red Devils.
But in a sense, whether United was looking to sell its entire club or merely an affiliation to the Saudis is immaterial.
Manchester United, one of the biggest and most powerful brands in soccer, took the meeting. Knowing full well what the Saudi royal family represents – its oppression of and many human rights violations against women, dissidents, migrant workers and religious minorities. To say nothing of the Saudi government’s significant role in the civil war in Yemen, which has killed and starved countless vulnerable Yemenis.
These are not state secrets. These are well-established facts. All the same, United was happy to contemplate a sponsorship, because clubs hardly ever turn down sponsors anymore. It’s how United went from having a small handful of sponsors to 63 “partners,” at last count. It has drink sponsors in Nigeria and Taiwan and a pharmaceutical partner for Vietnam. It has financial service partners in Mexico, Uganda and Serbia. It has a media partner for the Caribbean.
Would Manchester United add the Saudi royal family to its portfolio? Apparently so, even after Bin Salman was likely outed as a man who would order the murder of a critic, rather than the reformer he had painstakingly portrayed himself as.
And United is hardly alone. Soccer’s absence of scruples is as old as the sport itself. Its moral compass was dropped and broken irreparably just as soon as the rules of the game had been codified.
Because at the right price, soccer remains alarmingly and incorrigibly willing to launder bad PR for regimes.
It doesn’t begin with United’s potential dirty deal with Saudi Arabia. It won’t end there either.
Qatar was allowed to win – in dubious fashion – and keep the right to host the 2022 World Cup even though it’s well-established that it has its own miserable track record with migrant workers, some 4,000 of whom were at one point expected to die in the process of building the infrastructure to hold the big event. Nothing was ever really significantly addressed, but lip service was paid. And the whole carried on.
Just as it did when the government of similarly tainted Abu Dhabi bought Manchester City and turned it into a juggernaut. Or when Qatar bought Paris Saint-Germain and did the same.
This practice goes back decades. Argentina was allowed to host the 1978 World Cup even as the new-ish Videla regime terrorized citizens. Mexico got to stage two World Cups while it lived under stifling one-party rule. The second-ever World Cup, in Italy in 1934, was allowed to take place even though it was a naked propaganda play for dictator Benito Mussolini and his fascist party.
Soccer, as a sport, has never demonstrated spine or conscience. It’s always been fine with the habit of wealthy regimes to leverage it as a tool to shine up their image. And so United’s willingness to even meet with the Saudi royal family, regardless of whether anything ever materializes from the talks, is hardly surprising.
Because if you’re looking for some kind of ethical imperative to prevail, you’ve come to the wrong sport.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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