Integrity and sport rarely go hand in hand. That’s not a dig at professional sportspeople, it’s simply reality. It is an industry that is egalitarian to its very core, where every single individual is a careerist striving to reach the very highest level that they can. It is the nature of the beast. 

It’s why, every so often, when someone comes along and takes a principled stand – one that limits their opportunities or the amount of cash in their back pocket – they are quickly deified by their supporters. 

Just look at the esteem Henrik Larsson is held in at Celtic, for example. The Swede chose to remain at Parkhead for seven seasons when he could have easily moved on to one of Europe’s top teams a couple of years earlier. He turned down more money and greater prestige out of a sense of loyalty to the Glasgow club, and supporters idolised him for it. The bajillion goals he scudded in along the way helped too, of course, but it was this demonstration of allegiance that tugged on the fanbase’s heartstrings and elevated the striker to demigod status. 

People like Larsson are the exception, though, and not the rule. Dollars to doughnuts, when a more lucrative or prestigious offer of employment comes along, most athletes tend to go for it. Often, it’s hard to blame them. If someone came along and offered you quadruple your salary to do the exact same job elsewhere, often in better conditions, how many of us can honestly say we wouldn’t be tempted? It’s human nature. 

The matter gets a little murkier when it’s the source of the money that’s the issue, though. Saudi Arabia and its Private Investment Fund (PIF) are in the midst of muscling in on global sport – and they are making a damn fine fist of it, too. 

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Boxing bouts, Formula One races, the purchase of Newcastle United, the money funnelled into the nation’s own domestic football league, pretty much the entire sport of golf after this week’s merger of the PIF-funded LIV Golf and the PGA and DP World Tours – wherever you look these days, it seems, the sovereign wealth fund’s shady influence is lurking in the background. 

Just this week, the Saudi Pro League – also funded by the PIF’s petro-billions – announced the signing of Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante on eye-watering salaries. This comes after Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo moved to the Gulf in January, earning an estimated £173million a year, while a host of out-of-contract blue-chip players are being linked with moves of their own this summer. 

These are all top players, and all multi-millionaires, and yet they are seemingly content to shove Saudi Arabia’s disgraceful human rights record to one side. Lest we forget, this is a sexist and homophobic regime that murders its political opponents and has links to terrorist organisations, including those behind the planning of the 9/11 attacks. But money talks, I guess. 

Thankfully, not everyone feels the same way. Our very own Andy Murray, a regular beacon of hope in these troubling times with an impressive track record of standing up for equality and fairness, has had his own overtures to compete in Saudi Arabia in exchange for a huge sack of cash. He refused the seven-figure sum, and doubled down on that position earlier this week in response to the golf merger. 

“I wouldn’t play [in Saudi Arabia], no,” he said. “If I was one of the golfers who stuck with the PGA, I would probably be a bit frustrated and feel a bit let down. 

The Herald:

“I guess there have been lots of different sporting events there over the last few years. There have been a lot of major boxing fights, there’s the golf, I think there was a Formula One race there too. 

“I would imagine it will only be a matter of time before we see tennis tournaments played there too.” 

Murray’s stance is refreshing but the 36-year-old is an outlier. Many sportspeople tend not to take the high road when a regime like the Saudis come calling, and we cannot rely on an individual’s own morality to keep sportswashing out of Scottish sport. On this occasion, we were fortunate that we had a man of principle who could resist the temptation but in future we might not be so lucky. People like Murray are not a dime a dozen. 

Scotland’s sporting institutions are probably too small fry to even register on Saudi Arabia’s radar, which helps to keep them insulated from the regime. Even Celtic and Rangers, the two grandest football clubs our nation has to offer with huge global appeal, are not big-time enough to have to worry about PIF’s money seeping in and compromising them. 

For now, at least. The truth is that sportswashing works, as the Saudis are all too aware, and money is no object. With tens of billions to splash here, there and everywhere, the only limit to the nation’s influence on global sport is its ambition. If it wanted to, it could buy every sporting institution in Scotland a thousand times over, just for the hell of it. There is indifference towards Scotland now, but can anyone say definitively that will remain in perpetuity? 

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Murray is right when he says it will only be a matter of time before more tennis tournaments and the like are gobbled up by the PIF and when that moment arrives, it will be down to individuals to either comply with the regime or boycott it entirely. History tells us that many will opt for the former option. If they do, then Saudi Arabia has got exactly what it wants: to become the acceptable face of an appalling regime.

Difficult decisions lie in wait for Scotland’s top sportspeople. Whether it’s boxers or golfers, athletics stars or tennis pros, the time will surely come when their integrity is put to the test. We can only hope that they choose to follow Murray’s example and call out the Saudi Arabian regime for what it is: murderous, abusive and intolerant. If they don’t, then Scotland will simply become the next nation to be swept away by the tide of Saudi sportswashing.