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13/01/19 FRIENDLY.ABERDEEN vs FC DIBBA AL HISN.DUBAI.A General View of the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence.

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Opinion: “You’ve really gone & done it this time, Sunderland - why are we playing a Saudi side?”

“The decision to play Al-Shabab feels like a massive own-goal, even by Sunderland’s standards,” writes Andrew Smithson.

The Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence - due to host Sunderland v Al-Shabab
| Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images

Where having a player getting stung by a jellyfish or scolding their privates with boiling waters will in time become a good podcast anecdote, some of the murkier stories leave a lasting mark. Thankfully for Julio Arca and Kevin Kyle their injuries did not prove serious and can now be laughed off, but stories of sexual misconduct or managers with reported fascist leanings are a different thing altogether.

Then there are the administrative issues that lead to players being incorrectly registered, or the club having to pay for signings they didn’t even make – just two of the examples off the top of my head of the organisational problems or muddled thinking that have beset SAFC in recent years, but I am sure we will all have our own ‘favourites’.

As a result, long term fans will perhaps have the feeling that the next gaffe or PR disaster is never that far away, but a lot of the time I will be the first to leap forward in defence of the club when it hits the fan.

Some of the issues are a result of extenuating circumstances - and heaven knows I make mistakes in my job, so amidst all the noise I try not to be too critical without first thinking about things from Sunderland’s point of view and whether I could have done any better myself – with the answer to that one usually being no.

Recently, it has become harder to remain in favour with regards to some matters, but whilst I would prefer us not to have a gambling company as the main sponsor and feel the handling of fan behaviour could be better, I do still just about come down on the side of the club when I balance everything up.

With that in mind, Sunderland AFC would have to go and do something spectacular before I felt they’d totally overstepped the mark, and yet that is exactly what has happened – and no amount of mental gymnastics will change my opinion this time.

Sunderland v AS Roma - Pre-Season Friendly
Sunderland take on Roma during their last warm weather break
Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

I refer of course to the fact that whilst out in Dubai for warm weather training the Lads will be taking part in a friendly against Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Shabab, a decision I feel goes against everything the club should be about.

I could just about put up with the fact they were going to the United Arab Emirates in the first place – but now my concerns are much greater.

It would have been nice had we made efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and looked to travel somewhere closer to home, but that is probably another matter for another day. Of more importance is the question of human rights and freedoms within the UAE, and whether it is appropriate for the club to be buying into such a culture – from what I understand, and I am in no way an expert on this so would be happy to be educated, the place is moderately more tolerant than other countries in the region, and so there is some slight solace in that.

I can make a distinction too, rightly or wrongly, that certain businesses or resorts do not necessarily reflect the regime they operate under. That is undoubtedly a grey area though and part of a bigger conversation about global society, but for me, there is no ambiguity whatsoever about playing a side from Saudi – it is a major own-goal and suggests somebody at SAFC has a tin-ear right now.

I don’t know what level of opposition Al-Shabab will provide, but surely somebody at the club can see why even just the link to their country is problematic?

In fact, I think I know the answer to that point as the press release announcing the game makes no reference to them being from there, pointedly using only the initials SPL when talking about the Saudi Professional League. Sunderland could have picked any number of other teams to play against, and yet have selected one from a country whose leadership it would appear is actively using parts of our region to try and cover up reputed insidious practises in the most grotesque manner possible.

Whereas Dubai is already a common destination for many people from the North East, I fear that playing Al-Shabab – a club based in the capital Riyadh and with links to the House of Saud - legitimises what many feel is a totalitarian state, and one that is at odds with the ideals I want my club to promote.

It will become a stick to beat fans with too - since the Public Investment Fund that primarily owns Newcastle United took charge, we have had the endure endless torrents of subservient drivel and will now get this thrown in our faces the moment anybody in red and white attempts to raise legitimate concerns over what is happening in our area and further afield.

No doubt the point scoring will have already commenced, people gleefully engaging in tit-for-tat barbs over shameful actions that once again take the focus away from those with something to hide. Some readers may ask why I am only talking about this now, but that is because it is the first time these links have been so close to home. My football team is my break from the worries of the world, but now the two are becoming tangled.

Sunderland v AS Roma - Pre-Season Friendly
Will the club feel any heat as a result of this news?
Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

It has been depressing to see the way some Newcastle fans have blindly accepted and actively supported even their takeover, pushing a very worrying agenda as they do. It would be hypocritical of me therefore were I not to call out my own team having any association – not that I by any means think playing a team from the same country is in the same bracket.

It isn’t a positive thing either though, and I hate the idea of our badge, which should be a symbol of pride for our community and a power that brings people together, being used to suggest acceptance of prejudice and repression.

People may think that the fixture doesn’t matter, that a friendly means nothing as long as it keeps the players in shape and helps us get a result against Millwall after the break. I want Sunderland to show more integrity, however, and as harsh as it sounds to any individuals, I don’t need to hear any sort of ‘thanks for the game lads, here’s a pennant to hang on the walls when you get back to England’ or social media backslapping – that is assuming, of course, the opposition are allowed any accounts.

Shortly after announcing the match, Sunderland confirmed the Stadium of Light had made the shortlist for the UK and Ireland’s bid to host UEFA Euro 2028. It is a sign that they are moving in the right direction in some regards and is a development I want to fully get behind, even though I was upset by the earlier news – hopefully, it is not two-faced of me to applaud some things whilst decrying others at the same time, as I want to continue loving and being proud of my club.

A day after my article on the FIFA World Cup was published on the Roker Report site (The moral dilemma of a Sunderland fan ahead of Qatar 2022 - Roker Report (sbnation.com)) in which I admitted I wouldn’t know how to react if SAFC became entangled the sport’s more sinister side, I quickly got the opportunity to find out.

I remain Sunderland ‘Til I Die, but this is one fixture I cannot support.

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