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Mainz fans condemn Newcastle United friendly, citing Saudi human rights abuses

Supporters accuse German club of 'giving the Saudi regime a stage', ahead of practice match against Riyadh-funded English club on 18 July
Newcastle United fans celebrate the club's takeover by a Saudi-led consortium at St James' Park stadium on 17 October 2021 (AFP)

Fans of German football team Mainz have called on their club to cancel a friendly match against Newcastle United, citing human rights abuses carried out by its Saudi Arabia-led owners.

Last year, a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, completed a £300m takeover of Newcastle United. 

Supporters of Mainz, who are due to face the English club in a practice match on 18 July in Austria, have joined the chorus of critics accusing Riyadh of attempting to “sportswash” its reputation.

“The motive behind Saudi Arabia’s Newcastle takeover is not identification with the club or the love of football. The motive is sportswashing,” Supporters Mainz, the umbrella organisation for fan groups, said in a statement on Saturday.

“Saudi Arabia isn’t only an absolute monarchy where citizens have little to no participation in the democratic discourse, but also a country where human rights are constantly being violated.”

It added that the kingdom persecuted the LGBTQ+ community, and cracked down on freedom of opinion and women’s rights, as well as carrying out the death penalty.

“In times when authoritarian countries, big companies and billionaires use football for their interests, it’s no longer possible to argue football and politics should be separated,” it said.

“With the game against Newcastle, Mainz gives the Saudi regime a stage.” 

Banning Disney

Last week, Watford cancelled a friendly match against World Cup hosts Qatar on similar grounds, after a backlash from fan groups over human rights concerns in the Gulf kingdom.

German football fans and players have in recent years been vocal about human rights issues in the Gulf: Bayern Munich fans publicly criticised its club’s partnership with Qatar Airways, while the German national team wore T-shirts protesting against Qatar’s human rights record ahead of a World Cup qualifying match.

Mainz’s manager Bo Svensson defended the club's decision to play against Saudi-owned Newcastle. 

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“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?” he told German newspaper Bild, referring to the PIF’s investment in the entertainment giant. 

Fans of Munich-based club 1860, which is due to play Newcastle three days after Mainz, have also raised concerns. 

One group of 1860 ultras hung up a banner with the slogan: “Against sportswashing! Fuck the Sheikhs!” 

Last year MEE spoke to jubilant Newcastle fans - dressed in kefiyyehs and thobes - outside St James' Park Stadium before the first game under Saudi ownership, who expressed mixed views about accusations of “sporstwashing”.