WHEN news broke of Newcastle United striking a controversial four-year shirt sponsorship deal with payday lenders Wonga, the Football Association’s general secretary Alex Horne was strident in his criticism.
“The Football Supporters’ Federation of Britain told us in no uncertain terms it’s not appropriate,” he told eager reporters.
“David Miliband has told us he does not think it is appropriate. We are talking to the leagues about it. If you consider it as in the category of things that are inappropriate for children like gambling and alcohol, it feels like it is in that category to me.”
If these are first bullets fired in football’s war against unethical practices, I am delighted. The sport’s flimsy relationship with right and wrong has been an open sore for a long while, and any efforts to correct a culture that treats supporters abominably should be welcomed with open arms.
If Horne will follow up his rabble-rousing by encouraging the Football Association to lend its considerable weight to a campaign to lobby the Government for Wonga to reduce its eye-watering APR of 4,214% then all the better.
I suspect, however, that the howls of indignation about Newcastle embracing Wonga are laced with a dollop of inconsistency.
We should start with his quoting of Mr Miliband, who was present in the press conference this summer that announced Sunderland’s sponsorship deal with ‘Invest in Africa’.
That was a glitzy affair at which Tullow Oil – a £12.5billion dollar company – announced that its intention was to “challenge the perception of Africa as a crisis-torn and poverty-stricken continent and persuade British companies to invest there”.
They seemed like good people, and we took them at their word.
But a few days later it emerged that Platform, the oil watchdog, had accused Tullow of bad business practices in the very communities that they wanted to encourage investment. Tullow defended themselves strenuously but have never tried to dress up Invest in Africa as a charitable foundation.
It is about profit in areas where poverty is a fact of life for many.
This is not restricted to the North East, of course. The man who has turned Manchester City into a European force is a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi – one of the biggest cities of the United Arab Emirates.
In July, Amnesty international called for an end for a crackdown on peaceful dissent in the UAE that had seen 35 detained for expressing their opposition to the ruling family. They are at risk of torture or false imprisonment, according to the Human Rights organisation.
Gay men also face 14 years in prison for consensual sex in Abu Dhabi. Yet was this mentioned when Sheikh Mansour took over at Manchester City? Five Premier League clubs are sponsored by online bookmakers, and gambling is a growing ill in society.
The NHS believes there are 250,000 “problem gamblers” in the UK and links the rise in number of female gamblers to the rise of online bookies. Yet most wouldn’t be able to name all five of the clubs who had agreed to take those firm’s cash.
Wonga are a company that makes the most of people in desperate need of quick cash. They say that nine out of ten customers report high satisfaction levels but that is a smokescreen – it is the one in ten who tumble into unmanageable debt who need to be protected by those in power.
Hopefully the Government – and it must be noted that for all the hand-wringing by Labour MPs over this, their administration did nothing to limit the rise of payday lenders when in office – will force them to lower interest rates imminently.
But I have sympathy with Newcastle when they wonder why they’re being asked to be moral guardians in a murky sport. United say that they’re going to use the Wonga cash to help keep ticket prices low and to invest in their Academy, which are both laudable aims. Supporters, on the whole, seem non-plussed.
In an ideal world, it would be better if Newcastle could run around with the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation logo emblazoned on their chests. But the FA have helped to create a competition that means that cash is king, and a culture that means the biggest bidder will always win – whatever their business.
In this culture, Newcastle United will start next season with Wonga emblazoned on their shirts and it will stay that way for the next four years.
Lets hope that Wednesday morning’s rage can be channelled into something more productive that begins to question the corrosive forces in football; those same leaders who are turning ordinary people away from the game and pricing away tickets at extortionate rates. In that environment, maybe football would have a right to demand more wholesome partners as Newcastle’s next sponsors.
In the meantime it seems a bit rich expecting Mike Ashley to take a lead when the rest of football sits in an ethical grey area.