Rory Smith On Soccer

Newcastle, Saudi Arabia and the Power of Words

All too often, sports blurs the frivolous and the significant. Why should there be a higher moral burden on fans to draw bright lines?

What’s black and white and fed up? Almost any Newcastle fan.
Credit...Lindsey Parnaby/EPA, via Shutterstock

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In Neil Postman’s eyes, the problem was encapsulated by just two words: “Now This.” That phrase was the whole phenomenon. Those of you in the United States will certainly have heard it; in Britain, too, though here it often goes unsaid: It is a shift in the seat, a switch of camera angles, a change in tone.

Either way, it is a staple of news broadcasts. It is the moment that an anchor flicks between gears, gliding apparently effortlessly from the serious business of news — wars and tragedy and misery and corruption — into something entirely unrelated and, more often than not, lighthearted or even uplifting: the ephemera of royalty or celebrity or kittens stuck in trees.

In his seminal 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Postman argued that “Now This” was far more pernicious than it might have appeared (or been intended to be). It was proof, he wrote, that television news had lost sight of the boundary between information and entertainment, that it had prioritized giving people what they wanted to see ahead of telling them what they needed to know.

The jarring disconnect — the sudden change in tone — was just as powerful. By switching so quickly, in just two pithy words, news programs blurred the lines between what was important and what was not. By juxtaposing the serious with the frivolous — and often affording each equal airtime — they stripped the former of their significance.

The written media does this, too, of course, whether it is on paper or on a screen, hoping that if it cannot catch your eye with a chronicle of events, then it might tempt you with a recipe or a movie review or some nonsense about a soccer match. Sometimes those sections have clearly defined edges. Sometimes they blend into one another, and the boundaries between important and not important start to fade.

I have been thinking a lot about Postman’s work in the context of the proposed takeover of Newcastle United by a consortium largely financed by the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. The deal, worth around $370 million, is expected to be ratified in the next couple of weeks; the Premier League has not yet officially approved it.

It has, of course, attracted no shortage of controversy: Amnesty International, which has labeled Saudi Arabia the “kingdom of cruelty,” has written to the Premier League warning that allowing the takeover to proceed risked making the league a “patsy of those who want to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral.”

The Premier League responded, moderately brusquely, to that assertion. It will be far harder to shake off a complaint from BeIN, the broadcaster based in Qatar that serves as the Premier League’s partner in the Gulf, that Saudi Arabia should not be permitted to invest in a league that it has spent a considerable amount of time undermining through a pirate broadcasting network.

That, you would have thought, would be enough if not to give the Premier League pause, then certainly to dampen the desire of Newcastle’s fans to see the deal get through. When you are a child, you dream of your team scoring goals and winning trophies and achieving greatness. You do not dream of it being drawn against its will and for unidentified purposes into a simmering geopolitical conflict between sovereign states.

It is hard to gauge proportions precisely, but it is fair to say at least a portion of Newcastle’s fan base has few, if any, qualms whatsoever. There are myriad reasons for that, before we get to the futile whataboutery that tends to clog social media on subjects like this.

Prime among them is an overwhelming, long held and understandable desire to get rid of Newcastle’s current owner, the tracksuit tycoon Mike Ashley, who has shown precious little regard for the history of the club and the hopes of its fans.

Credit...Scott Heppell/Associated Press

Then there is — again, understandable — the belief that it is not for fans to stand up and protest at Saudi investment in soccer when the British government does deals with the country, when Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia’s ally in the war in Yemen, owns Manchester City. If the Premier League is happy enough for Mohammed bin Salman to come and join the party, why should there be a higher moral burden on Newcastle fans than there is on these institutions?

But I wonder, too, if there is a further explanation, one Postman might recognize, one to do with how we talk about failure and disappointment in sports, with our failure to separate properly the serious and (at heart) the frivolous.

The language we use for soccer is, after all, the same as the language we use for the rest of the news, for governments falling and politicians failing and, at times, tragedies occurring. A poor run of form or a disappointing season is a disaster. A manager or a player underperforming is an outrage. An inept or ill-advised owner is a disgrace.

And in the middle of it all are the fans, who are heartbroken or dejected or weary or in some way suffering, victims of a litany of injustices. That is how it feels, of course, to all of us, at times, but it is here that language lets us down, where the equal use of the same terms in distinct contexts — the serious business of war and tragedy, and the frivolous business of sport — is problematic.

Not all victims are equal. Not all suffering is the same. Not all stories are of the same importance. But after a while — for everyone, not just for Newcastle fans — the language blurs that line, erases that boundary, and so sporting disappointment seems to have the same significance as governmental incompetence. The Now This seems to become as important as the lead item.

And in that context, morality becomes much more flexible, and you are prepared to make sacrifices and accommodations and pacts with whoever rides to your rescue, so long as they can alleviate the pain, ease the disappointment, end the suffering.

You need to be saved, after all — and you deserve to be saved — and it becomes easier to tolerate the idea of anyone, anyone at all, as your savior. What appears black and white drifts into gray. Morals, after all, are only for those who can afford the privilege. What, in other circumstances, has been serious, now scarcely seems to matter at all, in a world in which the lines are blurred, the edges smooth and everything is treated the same.

Credit...Tony O'Brien/Reuters

Speaking of ways in which news media coverage is not always all that it might be: On Thursday, UEFA, soccer’s governing body in Europe, released a statement in which it outlined its preferences for how the season might finish.

It was written, as all these statements always are, in a moderately impenetrable jargonese — where things like the word “club” are capitalized — but, at heart, it was fairly simple. UEFA wants national leagues to try to finish their suspended seasons. If necessary, it wants them to finish in some sort of abbreviated, playoff-style format, in order to identify the teams to compete in the next Champions League on “sporting merit.”

And if the situation in any given country means neither of those options is safe — which remains entirely possible — then it wants some sort of result to the season: a method of determining who finished where, such as allocating teams points on the basis of how many points teams have been picking up per game.

This is all eminently sensible (UEFA has been a surprising bastion of common sense and patience throughout the pandemic), but what — in England, at least — was most significant was what was not mentioned. UEFA does not seem to think that voiding the season — annulling it entirely, pretending it didn’t happen, starting it from scratch — is an option.

Which is odd, because the conversation in England has been dominated by that prospect, one that should always have been an option of absolute last resort. That is, in no small part, down to a handful of club executives, almost always anonymous, who have spent much of the last month telling journalists it was not just a possibility but a moral imperative.

The line has been repeated, ad nauseam, every week or so, to the extent that it has come to be a central plank of the discussion, even as it became increasingly clear that it was distinctly unlikely.

That plan was always fraught with risk, and UEFA has essentially called it out. If those same executives genuinely — as they might — believe it is unfathomable to play soccer again for many months, then they must advocate a points-per-game system. Which just might, as it happens, cost their club rather more money than annulling would have done.

Credit...Olaf Kraak/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

My detailed, sophisticated analysis of “The English Game” — “the goalkeeping was terrible” — has prompted several of you to ask if there are any other soccer-related shows or documentaries that might be an option for anyone looking to while away another night (or day) in lockdown.

The obvious place to start, of course, is “Diego Maradona,” Asif Kapadia’s cinematic documentary on Diego’s time in Naples. There are a couple of standouts on ESPN’s 30 for 30 strand, too, most notably “The Two Escobars,” which I think is probably the gold standard for the genre. “Forbidden Games,” the tragic story of Justin Fashanu, England’s first out soccer player, is fascinating, too.

And while I can’t vouch for it myself, by all accounts “Sunderland ’Til I Die," also on Netflix, is very good; better than the highly sanitized version put out on behalf of Manchester City a couple of years ago.

A couple of other recommendations have come my way and piqued my interest, both with a Nordic theme: “The Summer of ’92,” concerning Denmark’s win “straight off the beach” in the 1992 European championships, sounds intriguing, while Rachel Markus — director of the Kicking and Screening film festival (which also sounds like something I might enjoy) — points you in the direction of Norway’s “Home Ground.” Rachel’s approval, I suspect, is worth rather more than mine.

A surprising development in the inbox this week, as several of you came up with ideas for improving the atmosphere in games held behind closed doors. Scott Winkelman suggested “huge silk-screen murals, with fans painted on them, and positioned as close to the field without interfering with cameras.” He also suggests putting microphones near the field to hear players and managers. Not if you want children to watch, Scott.

Michael Houghton, meanwhile, has conceptualized a Smart Crowd Noise System (patent pending). “Instead of just pumping out monotonous canned crowd noise, we utilize the wonders of modern technology, so the noise reflects the action on the pitch,” he wrote. “Pump thousands of television games into a piece of software and let that figure out the aggregate noise at any moment in time.”

Credit...Martin Meissner/Associated Press

Jerry Powell made the legitimate point that it is not always necessary to be in a stadium to have an excellent viewing experience. “To go to a popular pub that is showing that place’s team at an away game is nearly as enjoyable as attending a match,” he wrote. “Yes, being there is best, but some pub experiences are damn fun, too.”

And I’m inclined to think Patrick Tarbox poses an excellent question. “A lot of the appeal of football to me is the environment and the passion around it,” he wrote. “How quickly does that appeal of ‘anything live’ go away and we as consumers of football get bored or don’t like the ‘new normal?’”

That’s all for this week. Thanks for all the correspondence, as ever. I’m on Twitter, as you know, and remember that we want your subject ideas, as well as hints, tips and reviews at Please consider Set Piece Menu for your audio soccer hit. And you can tell everyone you know about how nice it is to get an email every Friday here.

Keep safe.