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Newcastle game will go ahead despite fans' ‘sportswashing’ protest

Mainz supporters have expressed disquiet over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

File pic.
File pic.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

NEWCASTLE’S PRE-SEASON friendly against Mainz will go ahead as planned despite calls from fans of the Bundesliga club for it to be cancelled amid accusations of “sportswashing”.

Mainz have expressed their “regret” at the unrest the fixture has caused as a result of the Premier League outfit’s 80% ownership by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but has described pulling out as “unthinkable”.

Newcastle are due to face the German outfit on 18 July three days after playing 1860 Munich during their training camp in Austria. However, the game was called into question after a Mainz fans group urged the club to fulfil its mission statement to tackle “exclusion and discrimination” amid disquiet over the fixture as a result of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

However, confirming that it would be played as scheduled, chairman Stefan Hofmann told Mainz’s official website: “We didn’t expect the reaction from some fans in this form. We respect this and regret that this has caused irritation because we see it as our responsibility to start the season with all the fans as a cohesive unit.”

Sport director Christian Heidel added: “From a sporting perspective, we cannot do without this test match.

“A unilateral cancellation by us, as demanded by some fans, is unthinkable, as this could have serious legal and economic consequences for us and due to the contractual obligations fundamentally stand by our contractual agreements.”

The call to cancel had come in an open letter to the club from Supporters Mainz E.V.

They wrote: “Newcastle United was acquired by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund PIF, which is chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in late 2021.

“The motive for this was probably less the enthusiasm for football or the identification with the club Newcastle United than the so-called ‘sportwashing’ – the attempt to polish the image of Saudi Arabia by entering international football.

“We recall that Saudi Arabia is not only an absolute monarchy in which democratic participation of its citizens has no place, but a country in which fundamental human rights are systematically disregarded.

“Suppression of freedom of expression and religion, persecution of homosexuals, oppression of women, use of caning and the death penalty are part of the laws there.

 

“Newcastle United is not just a football club, but a vehicle for asserting the interests of a regime that tramples on human rights and whose policies are diametrically opposed to the value and mission statement of Mainz 05.

“At a time when authoritarian states, large corporations or billionaires are taking over international football in order to assert their interests, it is no longer possible to separate football and politics.

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“With the decision to play a friendly against Newcastle United, Mainz 05 is sending a signal, and not a good one at that. This game sends out the signal that the values of the mission statement are not binding when it comes to choosing opponents for friendly or friendlies go.

“With a game against Newcastle United, Mainz also actively offers the Saudi regime a stage and thus indirectly recognises it politically.

“We call on Mainz 05: Take a stand! Read your mission statement! Cancel the game against Newcastle United!”

Mainz coach Bo Svensson has acknowledged the concerns of supporters, but also pointed to PIF’s other investments, including its stake in Disney.

He told Bild: “On the one hand, I can understand the arguments. Whenever it comes to football, things become very inflated and become huge issues.

“How far are we going? Will we also then ban Disney films with our children?”

Newcastle declined to comment when contacted by the PA news agency.

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