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Editorial: The vile Saudi regime's welcome reveals the bankruptcy of modern football

THE jubilation of Newcastle United fans at the departure of owner and chair Mike Ashley is understandable.

His 14-year reign at St James Park — which he tried to rename the Sports Direct Arena — has been been a down-and-up rollercoaster ride, punctuated with unsavoury episodes that have not covered Ashley or the club in glory.

As the billionaire chief executive of a string of businesses, he had to admit to MPs in June 2016 that his giant Sports Direct chain had been paying workers below the minimum wage.

Shortly afterwards, the parliamentary business, innovation and skills committee reported that the company — one of Europe’s largest retailers — imposed working practices that were “closer to those of a Victorian workhouse than a modern, reputable high street retailer,” as chair Iain Wright put it.

Testimony to the committee included allegations of promises of permanent employment contracts in exchange for sexual favours and such fear of the sack for taking time off that one worker gave birth in the warehouse toilet.

In January 2017, two employees were jailed for running a slavery racket at the Derby warehouse, importing 18 fellow Polish migrant workers and then regularly stealing two-thirds of their wages.

Despite being a hands-on employer who visited the premises regularly, it appears that neither Ashley nor his managers and supervisors knew of these and other abuses. The company reportedly took remedial action to improve pay and conditions.

His feud over merchandise contracts with Rangers ex-chair Dave King hit the headlines and reached the High Court, where the judge criticised Ashley for pursuing an intimidatory “vendetta.”

But just when it appears that standards could not slip any lower, the news broke on Wednesday evening that he had succeeded in selling for around £305 million the club he bought in 2007 for £134m.

That — together with the annual profits in most years before Covid — should be financial compensation enough for the much smaller amounts he has ploughed in from time to reverse several relegations from the Premier League.

The new owner of Newcastle United is a consortium dominated by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, but also including millionaire Amanda Stavely and billionaire property developers the Reuben family.

The Saudi sovereign wealth fund is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and owns 80 per cent of the club. He is widely believed to have approved the brutal slaughter of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey.

The crimes of the Saudi regime at home — not least its denial of women’s human rights — and abroad, where it finances sectarian terrorism and bombs Yemeni civilians into oblivion, should disqualify its rulers from any presence in public life in Britain.

Yet the Premier League with its sham ethics test will, like Tory government ministers, roll over to have their tummies tickled with petrodollars.

This squalid takeover also demonstrates, yet again, that top-level professional football in England lacks any morality. It is thoroughly polluted by big money. It is more a financial contest than a sporting one, making a mockery of the Premier League’s declared principles of integrity, decency, non-discrimination and fairness.

A serious inquiry into the world of top-level English football is long overdue.

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