City and Newcastle show how important and vulnerable football is for the rich and powerful

City and Newcastle show how important and vulnerable football is for the rich and powerful

July 31, 2020

One of the many oddities about the long-running case which saw Manchester City briefly cast out of the Champions League for allegedly breaching the financial fair play rules was the nature of the organisations which rallied round.

An airline, a telecoms company and a Royal Family, all hailing from the Middle East, all stepped forward during the appeal to demonstrate how much they cared, deeply, about City.

Right now, Newcastle United must be wondering what they have to do to get such declarations of undying devotion.

Pondering why they don’t get the commitment similar to that shown by Etisalat (telecoms), Ethihad (airline) and the Royal family of the United Arab
Emirates – all taking a football club from east Manchester to their hearts.

Why wouldn’t those oil-rich companies be in love with the club that brought us Georgi ‘Kinky’ Kinkladze and Sean ‘The Goat’ Goater and which had won just 9 trophies in the 100 years before Sheikh Mansour invested?

Moss Side and Abu Dhabi as soul mates.

It didn’t work out for Newcastle, for reasons we’ll come to, but the odd thing is that such devotion to football from global corporations and entire countries may seem illogical, but it is perfectly normal.

Foreign investment and overseas obsession with English football is well-

The broadcast rights for football have been sold off pretty much everywhere.

Cities like Leicester are globally known because of the exploits of their football team.

It is, by and large, the only stage on which England’s Northern towns make an appearance.

It’s based in the industrial roots of the nation – yet it is also this country’s most cosmopolitan expression.

Tribal allegiances in the old urban heartlands, played out by men from Argentina, Brasil, Egypt, Portugal and the rest.

Football is the basis, maybe the entirety, of Britain’s soft power – the emotional ‘brand’ of this country which makes the rest of the world feel better about us, more likely to trade with us (or at least buy our sports rights) and less likely to go to battle with us (or at least worry what
might happen to Marcus Rashford if they declared war).

It is the only part of the British brand which hits the mark globally without resorting to a form of nostalgia.

But it is getting circular – such is the success of the Premier League to Britain’s global reach that other countries are buying their way into it, nibbling away at the assets that are available, in order to build soft power bases of their own.

Hence, Abu Dhabi uses City as a weapon of country branding.

And if Britain can use football to sell itself, then it can also be a market place for others – a model already established with Qatar interest in Barcelona and Paris St Germain.

It is a tradable asset, which makes it vulnerable, as Newcastle have discovered.

While the process of the takeover proposal gave plenty of people time to tell us what they thought of the Saudis (little of it flattering), it is more likely that an argument over alleged state-sponsored piracy of broadcast rights of Premier League football cost them.

And sports rights are a battleground in the ongoing and increasing hostilities between China and the rest of the world too.

One of the first things that China did was to demote coverage of the Premier League to lesser-watched channels… taking precious eyeballs (and ultimately revenue) away from the UK’s most famous asset.

And there’s the conundrum.

While we may fret about the morality of rich countries owning football clubs, assets that, after all, have emerged from British communities, and while we may look on, amused, at fans on faraway islands in Arsenal shirts, it is that interest which keeps our biggest cultural industry moving and keeps the declining brand of the UK in the eyeline of the world.

We may worry about the distortion of our national game and issues of morality that foreign investment brings – but when that overseas interest goes away, we’ll see that football, and the nation, has an even bigger problem.

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