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Manchester United, Newcastle, and Selling Your Soul For Trophies

Amid rumors of a Manchester United takeover by Qatar, I look at what it means to be a supporter in an age of sportwashing.

Manchester United v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

Manchester United have been in the spotlight (even more so than usual) due to rumored interest in a takeover by Qatari investors. This comes after months of speculation that either Liverpool or United might be in the crosshairs of such an ownership group.

Manchester United—the great Man United—whose record as an English club is second only to Liverpool’s, might become no more than the latest PR sportwashing wing of yet another autocratic, human rights abusing regime.

These rumors, of course, devolved into #FSGOut hysteria in a particularly braindead corner of the Liverpool Twittersphere. In FSGOutberg (or FSGOutville?), the most important part of fandom is getting new toys to play with. Winning trophies in the regular season, it would seem, is a distant second when it comes to winning the transfer season.

Now, it has long been my stance and the stance of most TLO writers and regulars that there are no such thing as good billionaires. But, barring legislation that enforces a more equal and equitable fan ownership of clubs, having billionaire owners is sadly a reality that we must live with.

While there are no good billionaires, not all billionaires are created equal, especially when it comes to owning football clubs. Some billionaires want clubs for their own personal glory and/or access to a certain level of prestige and glamor. Others want, like FSG, see ownership as another investment in their portfolio. Others still use the clubs for more nefarious, and/or illegal, and/or immoral purposes.

In the category of nefarious, illegal, and immoral, it’s hard to find ownership groups that are worse than those currently in possession of PSG, Manchester City, and today’s opponent, Newcastle.

As we have seen, Manchester City consistently flouts the rules, openly challenging any attempts to restrain their use of money to effectively kill any and all competition. Unless the Premier League really makes an example of Manchester City, Newcastle will no doubt be among the top sides in England and Europe within a few short years, using the exact same tactics as their friends from the UAE.

State owned clubs, particular from autocratic regimes, simply do not abide by democratic principles and norms. They do not want a level playing field. They want the scales of justice heavily tipped in their favor.

Moreover, these regimes are notoriously hostile women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. And if there were any pretenses about letting supporters of any and all backgrounds participate in normal fan activities, you need only look at the last World Cup to see how accepting Qatar was of LGBTQIA+ fans or allies.

Do these groups typically bring success? Yes, sadly. Indeed, for their sportswashing mission to become a success, they need to distract from the mountain of suffering, human misery, and death from within their borders with slick and successful football beyond.

If Man United becomes yet another PR sportswashing wing for an oil-rich autocracy, they—like City and Newcastle before them—will no longer be a club. Their culture and history will be coopted into the latest sportswashing project. They will be asked to loudly defend the Qatar ownership, at any cost, and give up their own political and personal beliefs in favor of their owners’.

This is all to say nothing of any notions of fair sportsmanship and the cyclical nature of the rise and fall of successful teams. Since City’s first title in 2011-12, they’ve finished first or second 9 of the 11 seasons, and never outside of the top 4. It seems being able to pump unlimited money into a club, to be able to replace the last £50m defender with a new one, summer after summer, can make a squad rather immune to any sudden and dramatic drop offs.

This is the future we’re racing full steam ahead into, and one in which we are already significantly down the road to achieving: a future where a few state owned clubs have all the European places locked up, where fan cultures are coopted or destroyed, where certain fans are told that their place is not in the stadiums, and where we have to pretend this is all normal and inevitable. And proclaim how wonderful it is that our new Oil Daddy bought us an incredible squad, and hey, let’s talk about how great his country is as well.

Is this what we want as Liverpool fans? For our club, or for our rivals? Or, as the case may be, clubs that were never rivals but apparently are now?

Like many Liverpool fans, I’ve struggled with the question of “What would I do if we are bought out by this regime, or a similar one?”

Unlike the FSGOut crowd, I don’t define my support for the club by the players we sign or the trophies we’ve won. Unlike this crowd, I love our socialist, working class, and inclusive ethics. I love our history, our songs, our success and our failures.

To me, this is what being a supporter is about, not about being a shill for a horrible regime. Indeed, I’d rather we never won a single thing ever again than selling our soul to win everything.

To me, I would not, indeed could not, continue supporting Liverpool after such a takeover. And even if I did, it wouldn’t be the same club, at all. For now, I hope that day never comes.

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