Who would have imagined it would be Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table, thanks to their infectious core of young players? They may not be for long: It’s Manchester City that seems headed toward a remarkable third title in a row, thanks to soccer’s best coach and a 22-year-old cheat-code striker who looks like the future of European football. Then there’s Manchester United, which may have finally turned things around after years in the wilderness thanks to a bald, stern Dutch coach who had the courage to say goodbye to the past. But the Premier League’s most surprising story of all may very well be sitting in sixth place, trailing in these storied clubs’ wake.
A year ago, Newcastle United looked like it was headed for certain relegation. Mired in mediocrity for decades, the club last qualified for the Champions League in 2003; it had been shut out of European tournaments for nearly 10 years. In recent seasons, the team had become known for being lifeless and inert: Even at their best, they were rarely inspiring. But they’ve executed a rapid reversal in fortunes. Now they’re not just good—they’re exciting, even attractive. Led by a new manager (Eddie Howe, living up to the hype) and a slew of new acquisitions (wily veteran Kieran Tripper, lanky assassin Alexander Isak, silver-haired destroyer Bruno Guimarães), Newcastle is challenging to play in Europe once more.
This extraordinary turnaround has, quite rightly, been seen as one of the highlights of the current Premier League season. This week, The Athletic—in a piece that was practically a coronation—observed that “no club in England feels as unified as Newcastle right now.” Newcastle, after years in the muck, is back among the top flight’s elite. How did Newcastle pull it off? It wasn’t all that hard, actually. All it took was a murderous regime in desperate need of some good public relations.
A little over a year ago, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia finalized its purchase of the club by offering a series of ridiculous assurances that it—the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund—was somehow separate from the ruling regime. You see, at the time, there had been a little bit of hemming and hawing about enshrining it as Newcastle’s new owner. Maybe some of the reasons why sound familiar: There’s the country’s abysmal human rights record; its treatment of women and homosexuals; its costly blockade of Yemen; and the fact that its leader, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the grisly murder of a journalist and American citizen.
Dribs and drabs of the darker side of Newcastle’s story still occasionally get mentioned every now and then. For the most part, however, if you turn on Sky Sports (or, here in the United States, NBC) on a fall Saturday, you will only hear glowing reports about Trippier’s free kicks and Isak’s tricky movement. It’s a sad truth: Sportswashing works. There’s nary a mention of Saudi Arabia in much of this coverage—a fact that is also true of the other petrostate-owned clubs, such as Manchester City (the United Arab Emirates) or Paris Saint-Germain (Qatar). (This fact is all the more glaring given that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made it so comparatively easy to shine a harsh light on the Russian oligarch at the helm of Chelsea F.C.; were it not for Putin’s colonial ambitions, this, too, might have remained under the rug.)
That Saudi Arabia got away with it is a dire warning sign for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, which will begin on November 20. Without a doubt, it will be a thrilling competition. While 2018 winners France are still the most talented nation on paper, their recent struggles leave the quadrennial tournament feeling wide open in a way it often isn’t: Brazil, Argentina, the Netherlands, even England, despite its recent wobbles, all feel like contenders. Additionally, this will be the last World Cup to feature Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, arguably the two greatest to ever play the sport (not necessarily in that order). As such, it will also be a coming-out party for new stars such as Kylian Mbappe and Vinicius Jr. There is nothing quite like a World Cup, and this one should deliver on the promise of top-shelf football.
But Qatar’s involvement in the competition isn’t rooted in pure motives: The Gulf State nation is in the World Cup business for purposes of sportswashing—it is, in many ways, the culmination of a project that began with its purchase of Paris Saint-Germain over a decade ago. Qatar has heavily relied on migrant labor to prepare for the tournament, and reports of rampant labor abuses have been circulating for years. In 2018, it was reported that more than a thousand migrant workers had gone months without being paid and that many were living without running water. In February of last year, a report in The Guardian found that 6,500 migrant workers had died in the country since it was awarded the World Cup in 2012.
The country is a viciously repressive monarchy. Political parties are banned, and there is no right to free expression. Homosexuality is punishable by death; consensual same-sex relations can lead to seven-year prison sentences. Women require the consent of a guardian—typically a father or husband—to do things like marry or travel.
The question for the media, heading into the World Cup, is how best to cover an event that’s been assembled by despots on the backs of modern-day slaves. There are some signs that the teams themselves will take some limited action. Denmark will wear uniforms without any identifying markers on the front in protest of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers. Earlier this week, England captain Harry Kane announced that he would wear a OneLove armband, part of a larger anti-LGBTQ-discrimination push, even if FIFA, the international soccer governing body, tries to prevent him. But asking the players—who are there to play soccer and have no say in where the sport’s most important event is located—to counter Qatar’s human rights record is unfair.
That task should fall to the press. But the way that Saudi Arabia’s record has been scrubbed from the Newcastle United story, even as it suggests that a dire precedent has been set—that the path to European athletic glory is best bought with blood money—doesn’t exactly instill much in the way of faith. (Arlo White, the lead commentator for Newcastle United’s first post-Saudi game, spent much of that broadcast handwaving concerns about the regime’s human rights record. He is currently employed as the lead broadcaster of the Saudi-backed LIV golf league.) Here in the lead-up to the event, there may be some willing to illuminate the seamy underbelly of Qatar’s World Cup. Once the tournament begins and the euphoria of competition takes center stage, the fervor of accountability may quickly ebb away. In fairness, sports reporters are not political reporters and it’s a lot to ask for them to become experts in human rights and global realpolitik. But Qatar was awarded the World Cup a decade ago; stories about its treatment of migrant workers, women, and homosexuals have circulated for years. The action on the ground must be accompanied by stories investigating the country’s abysmal human rights record, as well as the corruption at FIFA that created the opportunity for these tyrants to buy the beautiful game’s most important tournament.