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Oct. 19, 2021, 3:14 p.m. EDT

Renewal of footballing optimism collides with moral question marks as Saudi wealth fund takes control of Premier League club Newcastle

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Associated Press

NEWCASTLE, England (AP) — Wearing a mock Arab headdress, Chris Greenslade, between swigs from a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale /zigman2/quotes/206351165/delayed HEINY +0.13% /zigman2/quotes/205347870/delayed NL:HEIA +0.10% , was proudly embracing his club’s new status as one of the richest in world sports.

“We’re Saudis,” the 41-year-old Newcastle fan said. “We can afford anything.”

The gloating and celebrations from fans were only before Sunday’s match against Tottenham at St. James’ Park, as the new era under Saudi ownership was heralded, before reality set in.

Callum Wilson put Newcastle ahead after only 107 seconds before the hosts collapsed to lose 3-2 and remain in the relegation zone. Much spending will be needed on players, along with a new manager as the crowd was demanding.

To receive the investment, Newcastle fans have to — reluctantly in many cases — accept their long-underachieving club becoming embroiled in a sporting moral maze of the ethics of ownership by a state. Embracing the riches of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund to remove a long-despised owner means an unwelcome attachment with the murkier side of a kingdom.

“You’re going to get stuff like that along there,” Greenslade says, pointing out a vehicle emblazoned with the name “Jamal Khashoggi” alongside an image of the journalist murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. There was also a photo of the Saudi crown prince implicated in the gruesome plot: Mohammed bin Salman.

“Is there any evidence?” Greenslade said. “Is it nailed on?”

U.S. intelligence services said they believe the killing of the U.S.-based Saudi journalist came at the orders of the crown prince who heads the Public Investment Fund now owning 80% of Newcastle . Planes owned by a PIF company are said to have been used by the Saudi assassination squad. Prince Mohammed denies wrongdoing.

As the van circled St. James’ Park again, Adel Al-Shammari, a Saudi studying at university in Newcastle, was watching in bemusement. “It’s fake news,” he said. “Believe me.”

When the fate of Khashoggi, his body and the findings of investigators was raised, Al-Shammari was uneasy.

“I know the story. It’s not like you think,” he said. “It’s a different story. It’s hard to explain.”

This corner of northeast England is the latest extension of the Saudi state’s efforts to enhance its image through sports investments.

“Just visit Saudi Arabia, ask the people there,” Al-Shammari said. “You will find the truth.”

For now it is regular Saudis in England doing the talking, albeit not the new non-executive chairman of the club, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who uses the title “His Excellency” and sits as governor on the PIF board dominated by Saudi ministers.

Abdulrahman Alshmasi traveled to Newcastle from the central English city of Birmingham where he is studying to watch the club he started supporting when the protracted buyout was completed less than two weeks ago.

“It’s the richest club in the world now,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll become one of the best European teams.”

That is the hope of local fans after 14 years of limited investment under the ownership of retail tycoon Mike Ashley, desperate not just for a first trophy since the 1955 FA Cup but just to be competitive on the field.

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