The real goals of “sportswashes” may not be things that apply to plebes like you and me. If Middle Eastern regimes want to burnish their image by simply buying European football clubs (and maybe soon American sports also clubs) and make them world powers, it has apparently only increased control over how they govern their countries. Not that it has stopped the flow of money towards these nations. Maybe it’s just to prove they can run one kind of business, so they’re allowed to partner with others to diversify their portfolios, on the unlikely chance that one day the fossil fuel market actually dries up a bit (He writes while chewing Chicago air today).
That’s not to say there haven’t been seismic changes in the game of football thanks to Middle Eastern dictator influence. PSG and Manchester City have distorted what it means to be a rich club, and the latter what is possible at it. Fans of other clubs will say they are victims of it while sadly (hopefully) taking the time to acknowledge the real victims of these groups (women, LGTBQ+ community, anyone who thinks differently). What we can say for sure is that the meteor of money from these countries’ wealth funds has rolled over a lot of romance in the game, and Sandro Tonalis reported transfer from AC Milan to NewcastleSaudi Arabia’s toys are just the latest example.
Tonali is on his way to Newcastle
On the surface, it doesn’t seem all that remarkable that Newcastle have now entered the realm of competing for and prisoner the signing of one of the more exciting young midfielders in Serie A. Tonali is basically the second generation of Daniele De Rossi, an all-action type who makes the midfield something out of that training ground in “Edge Of Tomorrow”, where possibly the opponent will be cut down from an angle they have never seen, as Tonali steals possession and sends his team the other way. At worst, he gives Newcastle more depth in their #8 slots with Joe Willock and Joelintion and Sean Longstaff, while perhaps providing some cover for Bruno Guimaraes deeper in midfield. He also just raises the class level in that area for the Magpies. He is the kind of signing that any club that is back in the Champions League for the first time in decades, and plans to stay there, makes. It is definitely a statement of intent.
But there is so much more to it. Tonali is just not a Milan player. Tonali grew up a Milan fan. He participated in games in Curva Sud. He dreamed of wearing black and red. And then he did it with the help of Brescia. And he became a team, lifting the Scudetto for Milan as their midfield anchor when they won it for the first time in 11 years last year. He was every child’s dream who not only played for the club he supported but led them to glory. It’s the kind of story that bonds fans even more to their teams. A player who once stood next to them is one of those who pleased them with what they all dreamed of. It’s honestly the pinnacle of what any kid wants when they first put on cleats. Maybe there are bigger clubs and more results out there, but nothing could be more important than all that for Tonali.
Everyone has a price…
And yet it was no match for Newcastle’s Saudi money. Given the state of Serie A and the clubs in it, and how far behind they are in the Premier League, Milan cannot turn down the €70m they will get from selling their midfielder. Tonali seems to have no intention of leaving, but will surely enjoy a huge raise, and no player will ever stay where they aren’t wanted anymore. Which is what he must feel.
The Premier League dwarfs everyone, with oil/blood money playing no small part in it, so even competing for another Scudetto and being in the Champions League with Milan is not enough for the club to turn down the money. They need it as Milan are still struggling to find a way to build a new stadium to replace the slightly crumbling San Siro. Tonali will almost certainly become a favorite with Newcastle fans, given the way he never stops running and his ability on the ball, but will he have the same connection he had at Milan? Probably not, and the money won’t completely cure it.
But it’s going to try, which is the sad part. There is nothing in football that cannot be put at a price, even the connection between a player who grew up supporting the team he plays for and what that means to the fans. We see it all the time with smaller clubs where a player simply outgrows a restricted club and moves on both to help his team and also to develop and play for trophies that his hometown club simply cannot achieve. But this is AC Milan! And yet they are no less a feeder to the Premier League and its regimes.
Now the heights of the game in England and their transfer fees and their wages. It’s funny, Longstaff is a Newcastle product who himself grew up attending games in St. James’ Park. And he may lose playing time to the Milan version of himself. Or maybe they coincide. That would be the hope, but it could also see Longstaff move down the pecking order and maybe even one day on his way out. Is there room for him as the club’s Saudi owners continue to fill the cupboard with more expensive imports season after season?
Everything else that has been sacrificed to Middle Eastern money can be nebulous at times. But we can certainly get our hands around this, even if it sort of slips through our fingers.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.