THE great Bill Shankly famously once said: “Some people think football is a matter of a life and death... it’s much more serious than that.’ Unfortunately, many Newcastle United fans seemed to have taken the Liverpool legend at his word when they trolled the fiancee of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi after she opposed a proposed £300 million takeover of their club by Saudi Arabia.

A year earlier her partner had been murdered and chopped up into bits in a gruesome killing that the CIA said was “most likely” ordered by the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“Keep your nose out”, said one fan. “Go home woman”, added another, with a third simply demanding she “p*** off”.

“You have suffered a loss, but end of the day it’s not our problem”, read another tweet.

In one message of breathtaking insensitivity Hatice Cengiz was even told her husband-to-be “deserved everything he got, no sympathy here”.

It is shocking that football fans can be so blinded by the prospect of a Saudi-financed spending spree in the summer transfer window that they address a grieving woman in this way.

Yes, they are desperate to get rid of their hated owner Mike Ashley after 13 pretty miserable years and the takeover had been dragging on for months causing them, in the words of their local MP, “mental anguish”.

But does it really compare to the mental anguish suffered by Mr Khashoggi’s wife-to-be?

John Nicolson, the SNP’s Westminister spokesman for sport, who led the way opposing the Saudi takeover, was so disturbed by the fans’ attitude he confronted them asking if there was no human rights abuse that would disqualify someone from buying their football club. “In a disturbing number of cases people wrote back saying ‘no’”, said the MP.

Shankly, in a 1960s joking quip, said football was more important than life and death, not cold-blooded murder.

As it happens, the fans’ ordeal goes on following Thursday’s decision by Saudi Arabia to pull out of the deal in an example of, to use a cricketing analogy, walking before being given out by their soccer umpires.

But the reason the takeover failed was not down to the country’s appalling human rights record but because of its refusal to stop its wholesale piracy of the Premier League for the past three years, and counting.

It’s a bit like someone applying to join a wealthy club of 20 people while stealing from the other 19.

By stalling on the Saudis and asking them to mend their ways the league’s bosses were simply protecting their business model.

In 2018 piracy was a key factor in Sky reducing its payment to the Premier League from £4.1 billion to £3.6bn, a 12.1% fall. Why keep paying more and more money for your broadcasts if fewer and fewer fans are watching football on your channel because they can get it elsewhere for free?

Saudi piracy by the rogue channel, beoutQ, started as a Middle East problem in 2017 when the Qatar-based beIN Sports, which owns the broadcast rights across the region, had their transmissions stolen.

It followed a diplomatic row between the two countries that saw a Saudi-led boycott of its tiny neighbour, accusing it of cosying up to Iran and supporting terrorism, which Doha denies.

The piracy contagion then spread from the Gulf region to Europe, where both Sky and the BBC launched complaints after their content was also stolen wholesale, asking the European Union to intercede on their behalf with Saudi authorities.

Piracy hits the smaller clubs in the Premier League the most because TV money amounts to 90 per cent of their income. Analysts believe they could soon be losing £10m a year if the illegal transmissions are not stopped.

And it wasn’t just broadcasts of Premier League matches that were stolen, along with the 2018 World Cup and Champions League.

Also pirated was the Scottish Professional Football League, the Scottish Cup, Europa League matches involving Celtic and Rangers, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Six Nations Rugby, the British Open, Formula One and Wimbledon.

It was for this reason Mr Nicholson, taking the UK Government to task for not intervening in the Saudi takeover for fear of offending an important trading ally, said: “As broadcaster and professional sporting organisations face up to the devastating effects of Covid-19, it is striking the Culture Secretary appears to be so unperturbed by the purchase of Newcastle United – by the very entity responsible for the theft and distribution of British sports and entertainment products for nearly three years.”

The truth is Saudi Arabia has tried to lie and bluff its way into purchasing one of England’s most famous clubs, assuming the power it commands through its very deep pockets would see it through, as usually happens But, for once, Riyadh has not got its way and it’s not often you can say that when you think how quickly it was business as usual after Mr Khashoggi’s murder.

Riyadh was nailed by a World Trade Organisation investigation that showed, despite its lies and obfuscations, the Saudi state was behind the piracy – coupled with the fact it was the ruler’s own sovereign wealth fund that was fronting the Newcastle takeover.

How could the Premier League keep a straight face and give a seat at the top table to a country where it has made nine failed legal attempts to get Riyadh’s thieving ways shut down?

It’s a sad fact of life broadcast rights are deemed more important than human rights in something like this. But it is also reassuring fair play and the rule of law still means something in Britain, which Saudi Arabia would do well to understand before it next tries to take over one of our sporting institutions.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.