A political and religious row is threatening to eclipse Newcastle United FC’s sponsorship deal with payday loans firm Wonga, finalised yesterday.
After inking the deal, United managing director Derek Llambas was determined to accentuate its positive aspects. As the club’s tie-up with the Sports Direct chain has ended and Wonga has declined to exercise its naming rights on the club’s ground, the venue will revert to its original name of St James’s Park: a move that should, in theory, placate fans who criticised the somewhat more prosaic banner “Sports Direct Arena”. Money from Wonga will also be fed into the club’s youth academy.
“We are building a club that can regularly compete for top honours at the highest level,” Llambas said. “As everyone knows, a strong commercial programme is vital to this goal and I am delighted to welcome Wonga into the fold as our lead commercial partner.”
But Labour’s MP for Wansbeck Ian Lavery took a different view. “Newcastle United will be sponsored by the money of deprived people up and down the country,” he told the Mirror. “To have those players running around on that turf endorsing Wonga is an absolute outrage. I have more and more people coming to see me and saying that as a result of job losses or benefit cuts they are being forced into these terrible but legal money lenders whose interest rates only then trap them into further debt.”
Also critical of the tie-up was the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which pointed out that the Newcastle squad has several Muslim players on its books. Under Sharia law, usury – the accumulation of interest on debts – is forbidden. “There are two aspects to this,” MCB assistant secretary Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra told the Telegraph. “We have the rulings of the religious law and we have the individual’s choice and decision on how they want to follow or not follow that rule. The idea is to protect the vulnerable and the needy from exploitation by the rich and powerful … The Islamic system is based on a non-interest-based system of transaction.”
The deal is worth £24 million over four years. Under Wonga’s typical APR of 4,214%, Newcastle would have to repay the firm £4 billion if it were an everyday borrower.