NEWCASTLE, England — In the shadow of St. James’s Park, a man in a flowing white thobe was standing on a chair outside Shearer’s bar, conducting a swaying choir. It cycled through all the newest numbers in Newcastle United’s songbook: the one about being richer than Manchester City, the one questioning the identity of Paris St.-Germain, the one that just goes: “Saudi Mags.”
As their voices resounded along Strawberry Place, gathering strength as more picked up the tune, a group of men in kaffiyehs approached. One had a Saudi flag draped over his shoulders. Another was carrying two portraits: one of King Salman, the head of the Saudi royal family, and one of Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s crown prince and de facto ruler.
Instantly, the songs blended tunelessly into a cheer: It was assumed — though never actually established — that the man with the portrait was an actual Saudi, rather than a local, cosplay version. Members of the chorus wanted a handshake, a photograph. Some mimed bowing down in thanks. And then, plastic pints of lager in hand, they resumed the singing, louder and more jubilant than before.
This was, in one sense, the day it all became real. Newcastle’s takeover by a consortium dominated by the Public Investment Fund — the sovereign wealth fund of the Saudi state, of which Mohammed bin Salman is chairman — is more than a week old, but, until Sunday, it remained something that existed only in the abstract.
It was a news release. It was a stage-managed video of the financier Amanda Staveley and her husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi, two minority partners in the deal who had been appointed — or appointed themselves — as its public faces, awkwardly meeting the players at the club’s training facility. It was something that had happened on paper and in the papers, but not yet in the flesh.
Only with the first game of the new era could that change. Not because Newcastle, suddenly, would be a particularly good team: The players would still be limited, the squad fragile, the manager still unpopular, the standings still more than a little ominous after a 3-2 defeat to Tottenham.
It would change because Staveley, Ghodoussi and, in particular, Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of the P.I.F. and Newcastle’s new chairman, would be in attendance at St. James’s Park. Only then would this new future, the one that the club’s fans have been awaiting for more than a decade, slip from the realm of the theoretical into something tangible.
That is soccer’s great skill, of course, its ability to bend and twist and adjust to any new reality. There is no story line too outlandish to be folded into its sweeping, infinite script, no limit to the willing suspension of disbelief, no line in the sand, no beyond the pale.
The biggest club in the world imploding because of its own hubris? Write it up. A yearslong plot to change the face of the sport that is destroyed in 48 hours? Just a regular Tuesday. One of the world’s largest investment funds buying a club that employs Joelinton so as to burnish the image of a repressive autocracy? Fine, why not?
There is an adaptability that comes with having no moral compass. Not only can soccer tolerate almost any twist, no matter how improbable, it can also do so in a matter of hours, turning what might once have been unthinkable into the way things have always been in the space of a 90-minute game. How else could nation states use the Premier League as a proxy stage for their geopolitical strategies.
And yet at St. James’s Park on Sunday afternoon, even as reality bit, it was impossible to escape the strangeness of the whole scene. There were the children, outside, with their homemade headdresses. There were the teenagers with the Saudi flag cast across their shoulders. There were the men in robes, adulation for their new owners in the form of cultural appropriation.
Then, strangest of all, as Newcastle’s longest-standing and longest-suffering fans in the Gallowgate End unfurled a banner of defiance — quoting the local singer Jimmy Nail and his description of this city as a “mighty town” — the stadium’s public-address system cut in and asked the stadium to give a “warm Geordie welcome” to al-Rumayyan.
As one, the fans rose and turned to face the directors’ box, cheering and applauding for 20, 30 seconds. Newcastle has always romanticized its heroes, perhaps more than most: It is a club that carries the memories of Jackie Milburn and Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer on its lips at all times.
There is a banner, slung from a railing in the stadium’s East Stand, that features a quotation from and an image of another of those heroes: Bobby Robson, a beloved former manager. A club, it runs, “is the noise, it’s the passion, the feeling of belonging.”
That is exactly what Saudi Arabia has bought with Newcastle. It is exactly why it has bought Newcastle: so that its emissary might get the sort of reception Shearer or Keegan might get barely a week into his association with the club.
There was, in the end, only one element that remained reassuringly familiar: the game itself. Newcastle took the lead after not quite two minutes, St. James’s Park melting into outright mayhem, before slowly, surely, fading from view.
Tottenham Hotspur, supposed to be here as nothing but guests at its host’s party, scored three times in a first half delayed after a fan collapsed in the stadium’s East Stand. The players had to summon assistance from Newcastle’s medical staff when it became clear the situation was serious. The fan was transferred to a hospital, it was announced.
There was little mood for jubilation after that. The stadium fell quiet, almost contemplative, rousing itself only to demand the manager, Steve Bruce, be fired immediately. There are limits, it would appear, even to Newcastle’s sentimentality. This was Bruce’s 1,000th game as a manager. He is from Newcastle, and supported the team as a child.
On Sunday, his Magpies were jeered off the field. That has happened a lot around here, over the last few years. It is that which the fans are hoping to escape; it is the new ownership group’s ability to deliver a different sort of future that persuaded some to don fancy dress, and many more to choose to turn a blind eye to why, exactly, Saudi Arabia might want to buy a Premier League soccer team. They are happy to be Saudi Mags, now, to tolerate any amount of strangeness in the hope of a richer, better reality.
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