Clownish populist Infantino is complicit in Saudi Arabia’s colonisation of football – The Guardian

Tee Rasheed
8 Min Read

Gulf state’s land grab for 2034 World Cup is yet another example of cartoonish Fifa overlord putting self-interest before football
Congratulations to Saudi Arabia, host of the 2034 World Cup after Australia, reading the runes having been given a month to prepare a bid for a tournament 11 years away, decided not to get involved. In theory, of course, the Saudi bid still has to be examined and ratified before a formal decision is announced next year, but Gianni Infantino acknowledged that is a rare and unwelcome vestige of due process at Fifa by announcing the Saudi success on Instagram.
Here’s to the future, and let nobody worry that homosexuality being illegal and women’s rights severely restricted in Saudi Arabia seem not entirely compliant with Fifa’s statutes on discrimination.
It’s been a good couple of weeks for Infantino. First prosecutors ended their investigation into the Fifa president’s relationship with the former Swiss attorney general Michael Lauber, who was forced to resign when a court ruled he had kept secret a meeting with Infantino and then lied about it while his office was investigating corruption at the governing body. In a bizarrely triumphalist statement, Infantino hailed a “full, clear victory for me, Fifa and justice” and attacked his accusers as “poor, envious and corrupt”. Which makes it seem that Lauber was very unfortunate, although we still don’t know exactly what was discussed at that meeting.
Then, Fifa’s cartoonish leader completed the deal that paves an uncontested route for Spain/Portugal/Morocco/Paraguay/Argentina/Uruguay to host the 2030 World Cup and Saudi Arabia the one after. Remember the brave new world that was promised when Sepp Blatter was forced to resign as Fifa president in 2015 after an investigation led by the then US attorney general, Loretta Lynch? This is it.
Lynch likes it so much she keeps taking speaking gigs alongside Infantino at Fifa shindigs, in 2020 praising its commitment to “transparency, ethical behaviour and its desire to improve” (unless it involves transparency over what was discussed in meetings with the former Swiss attorney general). And the solution is admittedly brilliant: keep presenting faits accomplis, and there’s no need for all that grubby business with Mulberry handbags, Parmigiani watches and envelopes full of cash.
The new world, as research released by the Danish initiative Play the Game demonstrates, is distinctly Saudi. It’s important to stress that the Saudi Public Investment Fund, as you’ll remember from the “legally binding assurances” given to the Premier League chief executive, Richard Masters, during the Newcastle United takeover, is entirely independent from the Saudi state, despite being chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and prime minister of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Which makes it very confusing that earlier this year, in a filing to a US federal court investigating the rebel LIV Golf tour, the PIF was described as “a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, while a discovery order was dismissed as “an extraordinary infringement on the sovereignty of a foreign state”.
A stunned Masters told the digital, culture, media and sport select committee of MPs in March that he was unable to comment on the apparent discrepancy, but just as big a question is why, with such acuity, Masters hasn’t been given a Sunday evening show on Channel 5 in which he reinvestigates crimes of the past: Guy Fawkes: Wrong Time, Wrong Place; John Wilkes Booth: ‘I Didn’t Know It Was Loaded’; Julius Caesar: When Highland Dancing Goes Wrong. But the PIF’s precise legal status is a red herring. The reach of Saudi Arabia within sport is enormous and that leads to multiple potential conflicts of interest. The PIF owns 80% of Newcastle United, whose chairman is Yasir al-Rumayyan, who also happens to be the chairman of LIV Golf.
Newcastle’s main shirt sponsor is Sela which “brings brands and people together by creating, constructing and operating unique destinations and recreational experiences”. Newcastle have an esports link-up with VOV Gaming, a subsidiary of the Savvy Games Group. Sela and Savvy Games are both owned by the Saudi PIF.
Newcastle’s sleeve sponsor is noon.com, a digital e-commerce platform. It is 50%-owned by the Saudi PIF. Newcastle have a partnership with Saudi Telecom, which also has had a sponsorship deal with Manchester United since 2008 and is 70% owned by the Saudi PIF.
Newcastle’s official airline partner is Saudia, the national flag carrier of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has another national carrier, Riyadh Air, which, even though it has yet to fly an actual flight, is the shirt sponsor of Atlético Madrid. Its chairman is top businessman Yasir al-Rumayyan.
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None of that is against either Uefa or Premier League regulations but it’s obvious where potential problems may lie in relation to financial fair play. In theory sponsorship deals have to be commensurate with the market rate, but regulating that is notoriously difficult – as was made clear by some of the charges brought by the Premier League against Manchester City.
That the Saudi PIF has a controlling interest in four Saudi clubs is against Asian Football Confederation regulations should they end up in the same competition – and Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr are all in the Asian Champions League this season. There is talk of other Asian clubs mounting a legal challenge, but nothing concrete yet.
Saudi entities also sponsor or have sponsored the World Cup, the Asian World Cup qualifiers, the Asian Cup, the Asian Champions League and AFC Cup, the African Super League, Roma, La Liga, the Italian Super Cup, the Spanish Super Cup and Lionel Messi. And then there’s Rumayyan, a member (of course) of the Saudi PIF, who among his many other directorships, is chairman of Aramco, the Saudi state oil company. When he meets people as chairman of Newcastle United, he does so with greater power than perhaps any club director has ever wielded before. Asking Masters to regulate him is like asking a leg of lamb to regulate a lion.
But who could regulate this? How do you regulate a state, let alone one as wealthy as Saudi Arabia that has been allowed to establish such a network of interconnected influence in sport?
Perhaps Fifa could have done something but Infantino, in his clownish populism, is not merely incapable, but complicit in the colonisation of the game by a state with a deplorable human rights record motivated not by doing what is right for the game, but by self-interest. All hail our Saudi overlords.

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