By: Forbes – Ahead of Arsenal’s home game against Brentford the Clock End at the Emirates Stadium unfurled a black banner with white writing.
‘Arsenal FC. Class and tradition. Something oil money can’t buy,’ the sign read.
Reportedly the work of the Gunners ‘Ultras’ the Ashburton Army, the statement was interpreted as a dig at their title rivals Manchester City.
Earlier that week, the Premier League charged Manchester City with over 100 breaches of its rules relating to finances, many of the allegations centered on whether the club acted in “good faith” with its disclosures, in layman’s terms it was all about honesty over cash.
It wasn’t just Arsenal fans who were angered by the charges, supporters up and down the country have raged since it has been suggested the Citizens’ success was ill-gotten.
However, commentators who spotted the banner were quick to highlight there was more than a hint of hypocrisy in criticisms about ‘oil money.’ It did, after all, come from a section of a stadium named after the national airline of the same economy the criticism was aimed at.
Adding in a second Tweet: “For the avoidance of doubt, you can’t be against ‘oil money’ – whatever that’s meant to mean – in some contexts and not the other. That’s both ownership and sponsorship.”
Any moral high ground the fans were claiming becomes even more slippery when you examine some of Arsenal’s past sponsors, which have included an actual authoritarian regime.
Define ‘class and tradition’
A lesser discussed aspect of the statement is the combination of the ‘oil money’ slur alongside the words “class and tradition.”
In the world of soccer fandom, assertions of superiority are commonplace, it’s part and parcel of the dynamic and exists largely without deeper malice.
But, as the Skema Business School in Paris academic Professor Simon Chadwick pointed out, the suggestion that oil money was lacking in class or tradition was an act that went further than tribalistic mud-slinging.
“Othering’ is a common human behavior whereby people’s self-image is used as the basis for judging someone else to be inferior, subordinate, or problematic,” he explained.
“This is a behavior that football fans commonly engage in, the latest episode of which was evident during a recent Arsenal game when fans unfurled a banner mocking Manchester City, its owners, and its fans.”
“Othering is sometimes inadvertently used to abrogate oneself of responsibility for something one has been complicit in creating.
“Indeed, given that Arsenal has a Gulf shirt sponsor that has often paid above the odds for its various deals with the club, plus it has recently been owned by a Russian and an American, one can immediately see how othering works.
“Nevertheless, this process is not solely or specifically about Arsenal and Manchester City, or about Qatar and Manchester United.
“Rather, it is about any club and its fans that have taken money from sources that one might deem ‘non-traditional’.”
I asked the Skema Business School academic what he thought of the banner because I know he’s unafraid of highlighting the hypocrisy that occurs in the moralistic stances selectively chosen by those within the world of soccer.
When the British media decided the Premier League should have an existential crisis over the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Funds’ takeover of Newcastle United he pointed out the lack of moral outrage over similar takeovers involving Chinese and Russian backers had faced.
Discussing the banner, Chadwick was keen to preach introspection before making assertions about class and tradition.
“Most of us have been complicit in changes that have taken place in the game over the last thirty years, and no amount of othering can change this fact,” he continued.
“Many fans, instead of disparaging others and trying to distance themselves from what they find unpalatable, need to confront the role they have played in enabling such changes.
“Furthermore, moving forward they should contemplate what contribution they can make to affecting the kind of changes that will deliver the type of football for which they seemingly hanker.”
How far does the discourse go?
It’s not just the Arsenal fans who use terms like oil money disparagingly.
At the very highest levels of the game, powerful people use language with similar connotations.
Back in 2019, Manchester City chairman, Khaldoon al Mubrarak, called out La Liga president Javier Tebas over his repeated grouping together of his team and Paris Saint-Germain as a pair of perilous external threats to European soccer or, as Tebas would refer to them, the “state-run clubs: one of petrol-money, one of gas.”
“I think there’s something deeply wrong in bringing ethnicity into the conversation. This is just ugly,” al Mubrarak said. “I think the way he is combining teams because of ethnicity. I find that very disturbing, to be honest.”
Tebas’s response was interesting, he suggested it was impossible for him to harbor racist views because he had family members who were of the same ethnicity as the clubs he was labeling.
“I am not at all racist. I have no issues about ethnicity. How can I be racist if two of my grandchildren are Arab?” Texas said.
“I would be a racist against my own grandchildren. That just shows the ignorance and how easy it is to say things without knowing all the details and people’s background.
“You are talking the ethnicity, it’s not true. People get confused when I say they are opening up the petrol and gas and finance it like state clubs.”
But Tebas, like the Arsenal fans, was othering. As many people have highlighted in the past, the two biggest teams in La Liga have been found by the EU’s highest court to have received illegal state aid and have almost certainly distorted the continent’s soccer market with wild spending sprees.
I don’t know for sure, but think it is highly unlikely the Arsenal fans who unfurled the banner would openly identify as racist either.
But both they and Tebas provide a good stimulus for asking why Manchester City or Newcastle United’s ownership by non-white Muslim owners sparks a greater degree of fury amongst fans of other clubs than similar takeovers by foreign investors from other countries.
It took the full-blown invasion of Ukraine by Russia to generate unease about Chelsea’s Russian ownership, while no geopolitical storm will prompt similar outrage towards Wolverhampton Wanderers’ ownership.
To understand this fully we need to get to the bottom of what the fans feel gives Arsenal its ‘class’ and ‘tradition’.
Genuinely I am fascinated to know. I emailed the Ashburton Army to give them the opportunity to expand on what they meant by the banner, as well as the other issues raised in this article, and am yet to receive a response.