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Newcastle United announce Saudi Arabia friendlies at St James’ Park

Green Falcons to prepare for Asian Cup as Premier League club faces fresh questions over ties to kingdom.

17 August 2023 Ed Dixon

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  • Saudi Arabia to face Costa Rica and South Korea in September
  • Amnesty International blasts move as example of “how sportswashing works”

Saudi Arabia will play two friendlies at St James’ Park, the home of English top-flight soccer club Newcastle United, next month in preparation for the AFC Asian Cup.

The Green Falcons national team will face Costa Rica on 8th September before taking on South Korea on 12th September.

The Asian Cup, which is being hosted by defending champions Qatar, is scheduled to take place from 12th January to 10th February 2024.

Newcastle, who began their 2023/24 Premier League campaign with a 5-1 win over Aston Villa last weekend, have been majority-owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) since October 2021.

The decision to hold the Saudi Arabia friendlies has been criticised by Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International, who called it another example of “how sportswashing works”.

Deshmukh called on Newcastle manager Eddie Howe, co-owner Amanda Staveley and others at the club to “break their collective silence” on human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

PIF has doubled down on its soccer investments since acquiring Newcastle, notably taking control of four Saudi Pro League (SPL) clubs – Al Ahli, Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Nassr – in June as it bids to transform the domestic top flight into a genuine contender alongside elite European leagues.

Signing marquee players is a key part of this strategy, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Riyad Mahrez among those to have upped sticks to Saudi Arabia, but gaining recognition on the European stage is also reportedly a goal.

According to Calcio e Finanza, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) is pushing for a ‘wild card’ entry to the Uefa Champions League, which would see select sides from the SPL compete in European club soccer’s elite competition.

The move would purportedly look to capitalise on the revamped format of the Champions League from 2024/25, which will see the group stage rise from 32 to 36 teams.

As well as a wild card, the SAFF reportedly wants the winner of the SPL to be awarded a place in the Champions league.

SportsPro says…

Newcastle’s ties with Saudi Arabia were on display again in June when the Magpies confirmed a shirt sponsorship deal with events company Sela, in which PIF is a stakeholder, reportedly worth a club record UK£25 million (US$31.8 million) per year. The team also plays in an away kit that is a strikingly similar green to the Saudi flag.

The Premier League said it had received “legally-binding assurances” that the Saudi state would not have control of Newcastle, but doubts have remained about the level of separation between the kingdom and PIF.

Staging Green Falcons games at St James’ Park will only raise further questions about who really runs the club, especially as it stands to hand Newcastle extra income as they seek to comply with financial fair play (FFP).

The report about SPL entry into the Champions League feels speculative. On a practical level, it would mean teams actually based in Europe having to miss out and it seems improbable European leagues would agree to further expansion if no further spots were allocated for them.

Then again, who would have thought last summer that the likes of Benzema, Kante, Henderson and Ronaldo would all be plying their trade in Saudi Arabia? The SPL is highly ambitious, shockingly rich and prepared to play the long game. The chances of joining the Champions League appear remote but, even if that doesn’t happen, the kingdom’s top tier will stop at nothing in its quest for global recognition.

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