The real goals of “sportswashing” may not be things that apply to the plebes like you and me. If Middle Eastern regimes wish to burnish their image simply by buying European soccer clubs (and maybe soon American sports clubs, too) and turning them into world powers, it seemingly has only heightened the scrutiny on how they run their countries. Not that that has stopped the river of money toward these nations. Maybe it’s just to prove they can run one sort of business so they’re allowed to partner with others to diversify their portfolios, on the very off-chance that one day the fossil fuel market actually dries up even a little (he writes as he chews Chicago’s air today).
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That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been seismic change within the game of soccer thanks to Middle Eastern dictator influence. PSG and Manchester City have warped what it means to be a wealthy club and the latter what is possible on it. Fans of other clubs will say they are the victims of it, while sheepishly (hopefully) taking the time to acknowledge the real victims of these groups (women, LGTBQ+ community, any dissenter). What we can say for sure is that the meteor of money from these countries’ wealth funds has rolled over a lot of romanticism in the game, and Sandro Tonali’s reported transfer from AC Milan to Newcastle, Saudi Arabia’s plaything, is just the latest example.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem all that remarkable that Newcastle have now entered the realm where they can compete for and capture the signing of one of the more exciting young midfielders in Serie A. Tonali is basically the second generation of Daniele De Rossi, an all-action type who turns the midfield into something out of that training area in “Edge Of Tomorrow,” where any opponent will get cut down from an angle they never saw, as Tonali steals possession and sends his team the other way. At worst, he provides Newcastle with more depth in their #8 slots with Joe Willock and Joelintion and Sean Longstaff, while maybe providing some cover for Bruno Guimaraes deeper in midfield. He also just ups the level of class in that area for the Magpies. He is the kind of signing any club getting back into the Champions League for the first time in decades, and planning on staying there, makes. It is a statement of intent for sure.
But there is so much more to it. Tonali just isn’t a Milan player. Tonali grew up a Milan fan. He attended games in the Curva Sud. He dreamt of wearing the black and red. And then he did, by way of Brescia. And he became a team linchpin, and he was lifting the Scudetto for Milan as their midfield anchor when they won it for the first time in 11 years last year. He was every kid’s dream come true, not only playing for the club he supported but leading them to glory. It’s the kind of story that attaches fans to their team even more. A player that once stood next to them, is one of them, delighting them with what they all dreamed of. It is honestly the pinnacle of what every kid wants when they first put on cleats. Maybe there are bigger clubs and more accomplishments out there, but there couldn’t be any more important than all of that to Tonali.
And yet it was no match for Newcastle’s Saudi money. Given the state of Serie A and the clubs within it, and how far behind the Premier League they are, Milan can’t turn down the 70 million euros that they will net from selling their midfield stalwart. Tonali doesn’t seem intent on going, but will certainly enjoy a huge pay raise and no player ever stays where they’re not wanted anymore. Which is what he must be feeling.
The Premier League dwarfs all, with no small part being played by oil/blood money in that, so even competing for another Scudetto and being in the Champions League with Milan isn’t enough for the club to turn down the cash. They need it, as Milan is still struggling to find a way to build a new stadium to replace the kinda-crumbling San Siro. Tonali will almost certainly become a favorite of Newcastle fans, given the way he never stops running and his skill on the ball, but will he have the same connection as he did in Milan? Probably not, and the money won’t completely cure that.
But it gets to try, which is the sad part. There is nothing in soccer that can’t be put at a price, even the connection between a player who grew up supporting the team he plays for and what that means to the fans. We see it with smaller clubs all the time, where a player simply outgrows a limited club and moves on both to help his team and also to develop and play for trophies that his hometown club simply can’t achieve. But this is AC Milan! And yet they are no less a feeder to the Premier League and its regimes in charge.
Now the heights of the game are in England and their transfer fees and their wages. It’s funny, Longstaff is a Newcastle product who himself grew up attending games at St. James’ Park. And he may lose playing time to the Milan version of himself. Or maybe they’ll dovetail together. That would be the hope, but it could also see Longstaff moving down the pecking order and maybe even one day on his way out. Is there a place for him as the club’s Saudi owners continue to stock the cupboard with more expensive imports season after season?
Everything else that’s been sacrificed to the money of the Middle East can be nebulous at times. But this we can definitely get our arms around, even though it’s kind of disappearing through our fingers.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.