With the financial demands on Europe’s top clubs, there’s an ever-intensifying demand for every last pound or euro to be wrung from operations. This has led to domestic mid-winter breaks, ostensibly to avoid the worst of the seasonal weather conditions and offer a break to players and staff, to now become opportunities for lucrative mini-tours to far-flung countries to boost support and promote commercial opportunities. Such enterprises can however have a negative effect, as Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich recently discovered.
Taking advantage of the break in domestic fixtures, the Bavarian club recently undertook such a tour. Nothing particularly controversial in that you may think. The locations the club chose to visit however have caused a particularly virulent reaction back in Germany. Pitching up in Qatar for a training camp and then jetting into Saudi Arabia for a visit and a friendly game against local club FC Al-Hilal has hardly gone down well back home, with the club facing a torrent of criticism. Accusations of putting money before morals and allowing themselves to be painted as supporters of regimes that flout human rights, have been long and loud.
The club is thought to have a fairly strong fan base in Saudi Arabia, and their manager Pep Guardiola was a vocal supporter for the successful Qatari World Cup bid, now mired in controversy, so there were pre-exiting links. Such notwithstanding however, it was surely naive for the club’s decision-makers to believe there would be no adverse publicity – or did they simply not care, thinking it was a price worth paying. With Qatar under constant scrutiny for human rights abuses and violation of workers’ rights as the infrastructure for the World Cup grows, and Saudi Arabia in the news for the flogging of blogger Raif Badawi, the tour was surely a tinder box, with a ‘match’ of sorts, all that was required to ignite the blaze.
In Germany, political reaction has been much as would have surely been expected. “Sport has a strong voice but it does not use it at the points where it makes sense and can be helpful,” was the assessment of the head of the parliamentary committee on sport, and Social Democratic Party MP Dagmar Freitag. Quoted by Süddeutsche Zeitung, she declared that, “Footballers don’t have to be politicians but they should be aware of human rights conditions and could set examples.” Perhaps the comments would have been better directed at the club itself however – or even others as well.
It was a theme picked up by The Greens spokesman for sports politics issues, Özcan Mutlu. Declaring that Bayern should never have played the game in Saudi Arabia, he said, “I find this behaviour shameful. Unnecessary. There is no honour to have a friendly game in Riyadh when, so to speak, right next to the stadium the blogger Badawi is flogged 1,000 times and has his skin pulled off his back.”
The Bavarian club, with a turnover of more than £380million, and recently ranked in the top half-dozen richest clubs in the world can hardly plead poverty and an unavoidable financial need for such a controversial tour. And, as if there was not enough trouble already, Bayern also managed to fall into controversy over a perceived snub to the Al-Hilal players when they were excluded from a banquet for the Bayern players and staff.
Putting out fires in such situations is a difficult act to pull off, but the Bayern media director, Markus Horwick has given it a go. The game was apparently sponsored by one of Bayern’s main commercial partners, rather than being some club-inspired decision and, as such, may have been a difficult and potentially costly commitment from which to extricate themselves. And whilst Al-Hilal president Abdulrahman bin Musa’ad was reported to be furious at the perceived lack of respect shown to his club over the banqueting faux pas, saying, “This is shameless and unacceptable, my team was barred from entry. It was confirmed to us that we would have dinner together,” it may not have been the club’s fault. Horwick defended Bayern, explaining that it was a misunderstanding and that the Bavarian club’s contingent had “waited for the team in the hall. As guests we could not influence access permissions where we were.” According to some press reports however, the club is to issue an official apology.
Horwick has received support from club chairman and former Germany striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Refuting claims that the club had turned a blind eye to human rights’ excesses, he stated in a club statement that, “Bayern Munich condemns all forms of cruel punishment that are not consistent with human rights, as in the current case involving blogger Raif Badawi, a critic of Islam. It would have been better to clearly address this on the occasion of our match in Saudi Arabia,” he went on to say. “We are a football club and not political policy-makers, but naturally everyone, ourselves included, ultimately bears responsibility for compliance with human rights.”
It’s been reported that Bayern, as well as easing to a confidence-boosting 4-1 victory against FC Al-Hilal, should such a thing be required for a squad coasting to yet another Bundesliga title, have also pocketed some 2million euros from their trip, but to many that is almost incidental. Despite Rummenigge’s protestations, the case of Badawi is not exceptional and the founder of the Free Saudi Liberals blog is by no means the only person facing corporal punishment in Saudi Arabia. Sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, fined almost a quarter of a million euros and sentenced to 1,000 lashes, Badawi’s crime is listed as “insulting Islam.” It is perhaps therefore little surprise that former German FA head Theo Zwanziger commented that, “I have known for some time that at Bayern, commerce beats ethics and, if in doubt, they will stand on the side of the purse. That’s a shame, but it doesn’t surprise me.”
It is of course very easy to criticise what seems such a callous pursuit of revenue with little apparent regard to any kind of moral imperative. It is also however easy to cast about you at highly visible targets, and few would dispute that much of what has been said about the controversial tour is both deserved and valid. Football can however, because of its high profile in the public eye, become a ‘kicking’ target, when other relations may slip under the radar.
For example, only a few short weeks ago, a high-ranking delegation of some 30 German businessmen from North Rhine-Westphalia flew out to Saudi Arabia, visiting Riayad and Jubail in pursuit of increased business opportunities. Reports suggested that members of the delegation will have more than 180 individual business meetings, which “definitely underlines the huge interest of business communities.” Is there a particularly large or obvious moral difference between such a business enterprise and the operation of a football club? Surely both are visiting Saudi Arabia in pursuit of commercial interests.
It should also be underlined that this is not an unusual project. A few brief minutes research on the internet is all that is required to reveal strong commercial links between Germany and Saudi Arabia. For example, Asharq Al-Awsat reports that Haitham Khalid Buzu, a Saudi investor in Germany told how the European country were “moving toward greater cooperation with Saudi Arabia on solar and wind energy, which are cheaper and safer sources than nuclear energy,” especially in light of its recent push to cut its reliance on nuclear energy.” He went to to add that, “Four years ago Germany decided halt operations at nuclear power stations used to produce electricity, and by 2020 it will stop using nuclear energy entirely and will replace it with alternative energy sources, especially solar, renewable and wind energy.” All very laudable of course, but does the desire for clean energy, trump moral obligations?
Even more damning perhaps is a report found by a left-wing German politician, and quoted by Suddeutsche Zeitung recently that between 2011 and 2012, German weapons export to the Persian Gulf more than doubled, with Saudi Arabia by far the biggest customer. A recent report in thetrumpet.com, an online publication offering in-depth analysis of news stories reveals that “Saudi Arabia plans to invest a trillion dollars in its infrastructure. To accomplish this bold initiative, it will rely on the experience of Europe’s most powerful country.” That of course is Germany. It goes on the say that, “Automobiles, highways and railways are on the to-do list for German firms. Officials see potential for fast-tracked growth of both large and small corporations as they consume slices of the Saudi trade pie underwritten by its vast oil revenue. An existing agreement made in 2012 between the two nations is set to expand.” Speaking on behalf of the General Investment Authority in November, Prince Saud Bin Khalid Al Faisal said, “Germany is the stabilizing factor and the main pillar of the EU economy. Saudi Arabia plays the same role in the Arab world. So this cooperation makes a lot of sense.” Financially, it’s difficult to dispute that it does, but should it be submitted to the sort of moral outrage directed at Bayern Munich?
Nothing that I’m saying here should be taken as any kind of defence of Bayern’s trip to the Middle East. That’s not the point I’m seeking to highlight. The noise coming from some critics however did set the ‘hypocrisy’ klaxon going off in my head. If the football club was wrong, surely so too are the other commercial ventures seeking similar financial advantage. When looking at dealing with countries or organisations that seem to be less than we would like, there’s often two paths that can be taken. Firstly, the ostracisation option can be deployed, and this is often the route that sports – not merely football – are encouraged to take by governments and influential members of the establishment. The other approach, often adopted by business however, is that engagement is the way to convince people to change. Perhaps this is the sort of dichotomy circle that Germany is trying to square at the moment. The problem of course is that if one situation is perpetually put in front of public glare, with a cacophony of comment and criticism, views of seemingly similar approaches are lost in the clamour.
Neither Bayern Munich nor the various business elements promoting commercial links with Saudi Arabia are all good or, indeed, all bad. Surely the great majority would concur in condemning human rights’ abuses wherever they occur. The club for example recently launched a Jewish history exhibition called “Footballers, Fighters and Legends; Jews in German football.” Then, when arriving in Saudi Arabia, manager pep Guardiola is reported to have commented, “It’s an honour to be here.”
Sure, it was probably a quick PR gesture for his hosts, but it also set himself up as an easy target. The truth of the matter is of course that much as with beauty, sin is in the eye of the beholder. People who seek to paint someone with a disreputable colour often fail to see their own reflection in the mirror, and in the desire to score easy political points, many fail to take on the more difficult, but often longer-standing issues.