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    Manchester United Fires Solskjaer After a Loss Too Far

    Lopsided defeats against Liverpool and Manchester City had the one-time fan favorite teetering. A humbling loss at lowly Watford finished him off.Manchester United had not done it after a humiliation by Liverpool. And the club’s executives had managed to tolerate the sight of Manchester City’s cruising to victory at Old Trafford while barely breaking a sweat. After each defeat, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the manager who had overseen both calamities, somehow remained in his post.He could not, though, survive a third. Solskjaer had promised, two weeks on since that defeat against Manchester City, that his team would react, that it would use the embarrassment as fuel for the rest of the season. Instead, his squad, one of the most expensively assembled in soccer’s long and lavish history, went to Watford — struggling at the foot of the Premier League, the sort of team United used to swat aside, unthinking — and contrived to lose on Saturday, 4-1.That was the end. A board meeting was called. A decision was made. Solskjaer, a favorite son finally out of rope, was out.Manchester United can confirm that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has left his role as Manager.Thank you for everything, Ole ❤️#MUFC— Manchester United (@ManUtd) November 21, 2021
    “Ole will always be a legend at Manchester United and it is with regret that we have reached this difficult decision,” the club said on Sunday in a statement that seemed to take pains to avoid saying Solskjaer had been fired. “While the past few weeks have been disappointing, they should not obscure all the work he has done over the past three years to rebuild the foundations for long-term success.”The decision to remove him, though, did little to resolve the uncertainty around United’s future. United said Michael Carrick, Solskjaer’s assistant and another former United player, would take over on an interim basis “while the club looks to appoint an interim manager to the end of the season.” That decision — naming a placeholder for a to-be-announced interim manager — raised new questions about the direction of the club, the most decorated team in English soccer but one that has not won the league since 2013.Saturday’s defeat had seemed to spark a sudden shift in the players’ attitudes. United’s squad had, for the most part, remained staunchly behind Solskjaer: He is, and has been, well-liked by his charges. After the loss at Watford, though, United’s long-serving goalkeeper David De Gea acknowledged that it appeared his team did not “know how to defend.” He bemoaned his colleagues’ tendency to give up a host of “easy chances, easy goals.”For the first time, that view appeared to be shared by United’s hierarchy, too. Solskjaer’s managers convened a meeting on Saturday evening to discuss the best course of action. The conclave’s very existence was message enough: From that point on, Solskjaer’s departure was a matter of when, rather than if.He could not have been surprised. Solskjaer returned to Old Trafford almost exactly three years ago, answering his former team’s distress signal after the firing of José Mourinho. His reign has been variable in the extreme: mercurial, in a kind light, and violently erratic, in a harsher one.He restored morale to a team heavily exposed to late-stage Mourinho. He masterminded several surging, emotional runs of good form, and he put together a record-breaking streak on the road. He sent out a team that eliminated Paris St.-Germain from the Champions League. He reached a Europa League final. He finished (a distant) second to Manchester City in the Premier League.But he also failed to harness all of the richly talented players at his disposal into something approaching a coherent unit. He lost home games to the lesser lights of the Premier League at an alarming clip. He lost that Europa League final. He did not win a trophy. After the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool last month, he was subjected not just to anger and pity but also to ridicule. He became, to his team’s rivals, a laughingstock.Particularly in the early days of his tenure, Solskjaer made a habit of evoking Manchester United’s glorious past, the history in which he had played such a stirring role. He would joke about the club’s tendency to score late goals or to mount comebacks or to make things dramatic. The leitmotif might have chafed after a while, but Solskjaer was nothing if not sincere.He cherished United’s history. He felt, keenly, that it was his job to make sure that this iteration of the team lived up to the standards set by its predecessors. He can have few complaints, then, that his time in charge has come to an end after a month in which it has become abundantly, painfully clear quite how far from that level it has fallen.In a way, his departure is vindication of his belief in the importance of United’s history. To tolerate three humiliations, Liverpool and Manchester City and Watford, would have been to betray how Manchester United sees itself; how Solskjaer sees it. To be true to what the club is, United had no choice but to part ways with the man who saw it as his job to maintain that standard. More

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    Barcelona, Real Madrid and Transfer Rumors From Another Age

    Talk about stars headed to Barcelona and Real Madrid conveniently leaves out an important fact: Neither club can afford them at the moment.Everything starts with the interviews. Mohamed Salah granted the first, to the Spanish newspaper AS, last December. He talked about his career, his ambitions for the season. He demurred when asked if he would finish his career with Liverpool. He offered a couple of placatory bromides about the continuing virility of Real Madrid and Barcelona.A few months later, not long before Liverpool faced Real Madrid in the Champions League, he did the same with Marca. The interview had a copy-paste quality: Salah talked about his career, his ambitions for the season. He demurred when asked whether he would finish his career with Liverpool. He offered a couple of placatory bromides about the continuing virility of Real Madrid. (Marca did not ask about Barcelona.)The interviews were not, it is fair to say, significant because Salah said nothing especially revelatory or surprising or explosive. Their meaning lay entirely in their existence. The fact that Salah, not typically given to inviting newspapers into his home, had broken the trend for Real Madrid’s twin courtiers said all that needed to be said.Appearing in the pages of AS and Marca, after all, is part of a long-established ritual, the first step in a familiar dance. It is — or has been, for a long time — a way for a player to flutter their eyelashes in the direction of either of Spain’s giants (though Real Madrid, most often). It is a sign that they would be interested, should an offer for their services arrive. In general, it is also a signal that Real Madrid, in particular, reciprocates the affection. And it is a whispered warning to that player’s current club that only a new contract, an improved salary, might stave off the inevitable.It is no surprise, then, that the last few months have seen a steady drip-feed of thinly-sourced transfer rumors suggesting that this might be Salah’s final season at Liverpool, that one or the other of Spain’s repelling poles might be at his shoulder, in his ear, coaxing him away.Currently, the favorite is Barcelona. Quite how that has happened is not entirely clear. In the English-speaking news media, the story has been credited to El Nacional, a Catalan newspaper that is, currently, of the view that Liverpool is about to sell not only Salah but also, apparently, its captain, Jordan Henderson, and its record signing, Virgil van Dijk.Players like Dani Alves, 38, now feel like a better fit for Barcelona’s budget.Enric Fontcuberta/EPA, via ShutterstockBut El Nacional does not claim to be the original source: It attributes the rumor to a website called Fichajes. That is, of course, responsible journalism — always credit your sources, kids — but it does not clear anything up, because Fichajes’ original claim was that Real Madrid wanted to sign Salah. Its first mention of Barcelona came three weeks after El Nacional ran the story.Quite what prompted the change is anyone’s guess. Much has been made of a quote from Xavi Hernández, the club’s new coach, a couple of years ago describing Salah as a “top” player. That he said it in a sentence that also referred to Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino is not mentioned. Nor is the fact that it is hardly a staggering admission. Salah is a top player. That is objectively true.What is omitted entirely from this wildfire of speculation, of course, is that Barcelona does not have anything like the money needed to sign Mohamed Salah. This is a club, remember, that has racked up $1 billion or so in debt. It is operating under strict salary controls instigated by La Liga. It has, by a generous estimate, about $10 million to spend on its squad in January.It is projecting yet another loss in this financial year. Its debt restructuring deal with Goldman Sachs means it has to cut back its operating costs drastically by 2025 or grant its lenders control of the television revenue that acts as the club’s primary source of funding. “A sword of Damocles,” as the International Finance Review described it. Barcelona also has a new stadium to build.It cannot afford to pay Liverpool the nine-figure fee it would demand for Salah. It might struggle to meet the $400,000-a-week in salary the player would want, even on a free transfer in 18 months’ time. (It also absolutely should not be thinking about deals like that for aging players: that is, after all, what got Barcelona into this mess in the first place.)Real Madrid’s financial situation is better — though it, too, has an expensive stadium refurbishment to consider, as well as the biting impact of the coronavirus pandemic — but it is significant that when it tried to sign Kylian Mbappé last summer, his current club, Paris St.-Germain, believed it to be nothing more than posturing; Real Madrid could not, the French team concluded, genuinely afford to pay any club $200 million for a single player.There is a reason that Real Madrid waited until the contract of David Alaba, the versatile Austrian master-of-all-trades, expired before signing him from Bayern Munich. There is a reason it is hoping Mbappé’s deal in Paris will be allowed to run out. There is a reason it is considering the likes of Antonio Rüdiger, the Chelsea defender, and Paul Pogba, the Manchester United midfielder, to revamp its team.Real Madrid knows it does not possess the financial heft to persuade Premier League teams to sell these players if they do not want to, because English soccer’s television revenues mean those teams almost certainly never need to sell. It knows, too, that paying a transfer fee and the stellar salaries top players command is beyond its reach. It has to cut its costs, and cloth, accordingly.Real Madrid’s transfer budget may take a back seat to its construction budget.Susana Vera/ReutersThis is a stark shift in soccer’s landscape. For decades, the working assumption has been that Real Madrid and Barcelona represent the apex of the sport’s hierarchy: They were its alphas, its final destinations, its mega-predators. That no longer holds true. Real Madrid and Barcelona, for now and for some time to come, no longer sit at the top of the food chain.That soccer’s whirling rumor industry has not noticed this does not matter, particularly. It is, by its very nature, slightly fantastical. That is part of the fun. Should a whisper ricocheting between click-hungry websites across Europe prove to be grounded in nothing but smoke and air then it does not, really, do any harm*. There may be disappointment at the end — when you expect Mohamed Salah but get Luuk de Jong — but in the meantime, readers enjoy the flight of fancy. The advertisers get eyeballs. The websites get paid.[*Other than to further undermine trust in the news ecosystem in general, and therefore permit the rise of the deliberately, cynically unreliable and the perniciously fake.]What is significant, though, is that players — or, more accurately, agents — do not yet seem to have caught on to that fact. The game’s altered tectonics mean that, for a player like Salah, flirting with Marca and AS is no longer much of a bargaining chip. Real Madrid is not an immediate threat to Liverpool, not any more.That is an important change, and not necessarily a positive one. Players at the Premier League’s top six teams — more or less — are effectively trapped. They will not sell to each other, not easily, as Tottenham proved in refusing Manchester City’s advances for Harry Kane last summer. The only club that can afford to extricate them is, most likely, P.S.G.Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United, in particular, are no longer proving grounds for Real Madrid and Barcelona. In those interviews, Salah twice said that his future was in his club’s hands. It was taken, at the time, as a challenge to Liverpool: to offer him a contract that fulfilled his true value, or else.But perhaps it was simply a recognition of the truth. Liverpool, like the rest of the Premier League’s elite, is in control of what happens to its star players, of how long the dance lasts, of when the song ends.Getting the Numbers RightPortrait of a mismatch.Carl Recine/Action Images Via ReutersAt roughly the same time as England was running in its 10th goal of the evening against San Marino, Italy was running out of ideas. The Italians, the European champions, had a relatively simple task in their final qualifying game, a road trip to Belfast to face a Northern Ireland team with nothing at stake but pride: Italy had to win to seal its place in Qatar next winter, and hope that Switzerland, its rival, did not rout Bulgaria at the same time.With 10 minutes to go, though, it was getting desperate. The score was mounting in Lucerne — two-nil, three-nil, four — but remained unmoving at Windsor Park. Italy could not pick its way through Northern Ireland. It could not play around Northern Ireland. And so, eventually, desperately, it tried to go over, launching a series of hopeful, hopeless, long balls into the penalty area. It did not work. The final whistle blew. The crowd roared.And so, not quite six months after it conquered a continent, Italy faces the prospect of navigating a hazardous playoff round simply to make it to Qatar. The idea brings back unhappy memories: It is only four years, after all, since Italy lost at the same stage to Sweden — a potential opponent, this time around — and missed out on Russia 2018 altogether.Those two results are worth considering in tandem. England’s 10-0 demolition of the tiny city-state prompted a reprise of the old, loaded discussion about whether UEFA needs to introduce prequalifying to weed out some of the weaker teams in its field. Italy’s 0-0 stalemate convinced Derek Rae, the respected ESPN commentator, to suggest that perhaps Europe merited more spaces at the World Cup.Italy’s week: no goals, but one lifeline.Peter Morrison/Associated PressNeither of these ideas is quite as charged as they seem to be (warning: there is no fulmination about to happen). Only two federations — Europe and South America — do not filter the pool of teams before the final stage of qualifying. It happens in Africa, Asia and North America. It is not anti-competitive. It is not the equivalent of the European Super League. It is simply changing the structure of how teams qualify for the World Cup.Likewise, the concept of expanding Europe’s footprint is not without merit. The presence of not only Italy but Portugal — the last two European champions — in the playoff round indicates Europe’s strength in depth.There is a good chance that 50 percent of all the teams in South America will be in Qatar, as opposed to a quarter of Europe’s, and just 10 percent of Africa’s. Africa, certainly, is underrepresented. But that is not to say that Europe is overrepresented: According to the (flawed) FIFA rankings, 18 of the best 32 teams in the world are in Europe. It has 13 slots for the World Cup.At the heart of both of these arguments is what you think the World Cup should do, and should be. If it is there to gather the world’s best teams, then Europe should have more slots and there should, probably, be prequalifying. If it has another mission, to function as an inclusive carnival, to help countries around the world aspire to something, then it should not.Of course, at least one of these arguments has been rendered moot by FIFA: This will, after all, be the last 32-team World Cup. Starting in 2026, 16 European teams will qualify (and nine from Africa), but the competition’s aspirational quality will not have been diminished. It is easy to rail against the expansion of the World Cup. In some lights, though, it has the faintest glow of logic behind it.Yes, Yes, Canada, We KnowJason Franson/The Canadian Press, via Associated PressAs many of you will have noticed, Canada now sits proudly atop the Octagon that will determine North and Central America’s entrants for next year’s World Cup, thanks in no small part to an impressive 2-1 win against a stalling Mexico in what appeared to be the actual North Pole.We receive reasonably regular correspondence demanding we cover — in this newsletter, for some reason, rather than anywhere else — Canada’s sudden emergence as a global superpower. And we will (because it’s a fascinating story, not because of mob rule), as qualification draws closer. But for now, please make do with this video of a man jumping into a snowdrift in celebration.Cashing In on MaradonaThe majority of speculative emails that I receive, these days, are related to soccer’s nascent romance with the world of NFTs. It is, after all, a natural fit: a nihilistic, self-regarding world where value has been completely detached from inherent worth and, well, cryptocurrency.It is a subject that makes me feel deeply uneasy. Soccer is only just starting to reckon with its unhealthy relationship with gambling, and it seems to be using NFTs — which, as far as I can tell, follow much the same dynamic — to plug the gap. The sport should, I feel, be a little more careful about where it takes its money, and precisely what its partners do. The sport does not feel the same way.But the sheer volume of those emails is, all of a sudden, being challenged by an upstart: correspondence alerting me to some project or other about Diego Maradona. There is an Amazon Prime series about his life, one which seems to borrow its dramatic aesthetic from a telenovela and its soccer scenes from When Saturday Comes. There is a reissue of Jimmy Burns’s biography. There is a Spotify podcast about his final few days, hosted by the renowned investigative journalist Thierry Henry.Napoli’s most recent tribute to Diego Maradona was sartorial.Jennifer Lorenzini/ReutersThis is all harmless, of course: much more harmless, potentially, than NFTs. And yet there is a faint feeling of exploitation here, too, that Maradona’s story has already been packaged as content, his legacy used as script fodder, his myth portioned into rights and sold off. It is only a year since his death. It feels too soon, somehow, to start setting in stone how we should think about his life.CorrespondencePlenty of feedback on alternative cards this week. “The punishment has to be extremely unpalatable to both the players themselves and the managers, while not destroying the contest,” wrote Timothy Ogden. He suggests that the player receiving an orange card would still have to serve a subsequent, one-game suspension, and that a team must have a designated replacement, a player who cannot be used as a regular substitute.Alex McMillan and Carson Stanwood are both in favor of simple sin bins for tactical foulers: 5 or 10 minutes out of the game, with no further punishment. But there was a bit of outside-the-box — literally, as you will see — thinking from David Simpson, too. For a tactical foul, he wrote, “the offended team should be allowed to place the ball anywhere outside the penalty area for a direct free kick.” That’s a really good idea. More

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    For Qatar, the World Cup’s Glamour Is the Payoff

    As the 2022 field starts to take shape, there is a sense that the host nation, after a decade of scrutiny and criticism, will at last get the return it expected.There have been times, over the last 11 years, over a decade of acrimony and accusation and controversy and scandal, when it has felt entirely reasonable to ask whether, deep down, in private moments and surreptitious whispers, some of those involved in winning the 2022 World Cup for Qatar might have wondered whether it has all been worth it.The cost of the project, the stadiums summoned from dust, the cities imagined out of nothing, the thousands of acres of grass and trees grown in desert sand, was all anticipated, built into the proposal. But those hundreds of billions are not the only price that has been paid.That one decision changed soccer on some fundamental, irrevocable level. This week, when the Premier League revealed its calendar for next season, it proudly claimed that it had hit upon a way to “limit” the impact of World Cup 2022 to a single campaign. In one sense, that is true. In another, the impact of the tournament is such that it has shot through the very fabric of the sport.Awarding the tournament to Qatar brought down an entire court of grasping, grifting princelings at FIFA. It led to sweeping anticorruption investigations and dawn raids on luxury hotels. It landed more than a few people on wanted lists and in jail. It ended the career of Michel Platini. Ultimately, it toppled Sepp Blatter.More than that, it undermined trust — perhaps fatally — in the body that is supposed to represent the best interests of the game. It violently ruptured the relationships between FIFA and all of the organizations that feed into it: the confederations, leagues, clubs, unions and fans.The Al Thumama stadium, which was christened last month, is one of eight constructed or refurbished for use at next year’s World Cup.Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesThe vote for Qatar in 2010 is not quite soccer’s original sin: The antipathy and mistrust that characterizes the sport predates the moment Blatter, to an audible gasp, revealed that Qatar would stage the biggest — second-biggest, for readers in the United States — sporting event in the world. But it is difficult not to believe that, from that day on, those divisions became more pronounced, more concrete, more bilious, and that the game has never recovered.Those involved in the vote, those targeted by the investigations, those hounded out of office or raised from their beds by the Swiss police would, most likely, be of the view that perhaps it might have been better if Australia had won.So, too, of course, would those migrant workers who have died during Qatar’s unprecedented building spree in the years since it won hosting rights. Estimates of how many have lost their lives for a nation’s quixotic ambition vary: 38, apparently, according to the event’s organizing committee; 6,500 from five South Asian nations alone, according to a less invested investigation. Tragically, the latter report is likely to be the more accurate. Either number is too high.But if next year’s tournament has not been worth it for soccer, and has not been worth it for those whose lives were lost — or the many tens of thousands more whose safety has been put at risk — it has also been hard to make a case that Qatar has emerged well from the project.In one light, after all, these last 11 years have brought nothing but scrutiny: on the system of indentured labor that compelled all those migrant workers to go to work in searing heat on projects of triumphal scale and Midean hubris, and prevented them from leaving the country, from going home, without their employer’s permission; on Qatar’s abysmal human rights record; on its intolerance of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.This was not, it is likely, the reaction that Qatar expected when it won the vote, when the streets of Doha filled with a delirious populace, when it seemed to take top billing on the world stage. Its aims may have been more subtle, more complex than just one blast of good P.R., but it is safe to assume the feedback has not quite been as the bid’s masterminds would have hoped.And yet, it is now that they might start to feel that — for all the trouble, for all the fury, for all the glaring spotlight — they will, somehow, still, get the return they wanted. There is a glamour to a World Cup: a dazzling, bewitching quality, so strong that even now, a year out, it is possible to sense its first glimmers.This is the week, after all, that the tournament’s field will finally start to take shape. Only four teams have qualified so far — the host, Germany, Denmark and, after a win on Thursday, Brazil — but by next Wednesday, more than half of the European contingent will have been decided. Spain and England, surely; most likely France, the defending champion, and Belgium; possibly Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands.Brazil, which hasn’t lost a game in qualifying, booked its place in the World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Colombia on Thursday.Sebastiao Moreira/EPA, via ShutterstockNow that Brazil is in, Argentina should be following in its rival’s wake. Mexico should be in a strong position. Iran and South Korea are almost there. Saudi Arabia may well have joined them.The draw remains months away, of course, but that is not the World Cup’s only appeal. This will be the last time either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi graces soccer’s biggest stage; it will be the final chance for both to cement their legacies. It may be the moment England’s golden generation blossoms. It might prove the stage for South America, for the first time since 2002, to wrest the crown from Europe.It is impossible not to be intrigued by all of those possibilities, to feel the slightest judder of anticipation at what is to come. There is an atavistic thrill to the World Cup: its appeal lies in what it makes you remember, where it takes you back, to your first encounter with its great carnival spirit, the first moment you clapped eyes on this great, global festival.But there is a danger there, too, because that is why Qatar went to such trouble to claim the tournament, why it endured all of the criticism, why it placed all of those workers’ lives in jeopardy: because the World Cup’s power is to make you remember, and in doing so, to make you forget.That is what Qatar has spent $138 billion to acquire: that feeling, that giddy excitement, that irresistible smile. For that, it determined there was no price too high. And that means it is more important now than ever, as the soccer itself begins to work its amnesiac magic, that we do not lose sight of what this tournament has cost.No Next Step on the Ladder (Reprise)Is Steven Gerrard’s latest move just a way station in his career?Francisco Seco/Associated PressThere was something telling about the way Steven Gerrard’s appointment as Aston Villa’s manager was framed. A promising young manager’s taking a considerable step up — in terms of quality of opponent, at least, if not necessarily scale of club — accounted for a portion of the coverage.So, too, did a historic, ambitious — and expensively assembled — team appointing a relative neophyte at a delicate stage of its season, at least partly because of his illustrious playing career (this is a plan that never, absolutely never goes wrong, of course). But more than anything, Aston Villa’s union with Gerrard was presented as a story about another club entirely.It is no secret that Gerrard wishes, one day, to manage Liverpool, the team he supported as a child, and the team he gave the best years of his career. It does not require any great detective work to establish that, in his mind, leaving Rangers — the club to which he delivered the Scottish championship last summer — for Aston Villa is a step on that journey.But it is not a sign of an especially healthy culture that a major decision at a team of Villa’s scale and scope should be seen through the lens of what it might mean for Liverpool. That is a sign that England’s current elite, perhaps, occupy rather too much conceptual space in soccer’s never-ending discourse.That Gerrard sees Villa as a springboard, the logic goes, is good for the club: If he succeeds Jürgen Klopp at Anfield when Klopp’s contract expires in 2024 — the point when Klopp has made plain he intends to leave England — it will be because he had lifted Villa from its current station into a better one.That is not quite the whole story. There is, of course, a risk for Villa in the appointment: It is possible Gerrard will not be able to succeed in England as he did in Scotland. But the greatest risk is for Gerrard, for two reasons. First, it is not entirely clear what Villa regards as success: Is it finishing in the top 10? Is it qualifying for Europe? Is it winning a cup?And second, even more opaque is what form of success he would need to enjoy at Villa to convince Liverpool that he is ready not only to do the job on which he has his heart set, but that he can do it well. Would taking Villa to seventh make him a more compelling candidate than — say — a coach who has won a Bundesliga title, or thrived in the Champions League, or managed a phalanx of superstars? Probably not.It is tempting to believe that, for Gerrard, it may not matter. His bond with Liverpool may be strong enough that anything other than abject failure is the only proof his alma mater requires. But Fenway Sports Group, the club’s owner, is not the sort to be distracted by sentiment, or dazzled by stardust. It will want Gerrard to show he is up to the task. The problem is working out whether it is possible.Just Getting StartedMarta Torrejón and Barcelona thumped Hoffenheim, 4-0, in the Champions League on Wednesday.Eric Alonso/Getty ImagesMarta Torrejón does not betray even the slightest hint of envy. She is only 31, but she knows that is old enough, in women’s soccer, effectively to belong to a previous generation. When her career started, she was not fully professional; nor was the game she played, not in Spain. She did not have access to state-of-the-art training facilities until her mid-20s.She has still built an impressive career: she has represented her country — 90 times, no less, before retiring after the 2019 World Cup — and she has been, for eight years, a cornerstone of the Barcelona team that has risen inexorably to become the pre-eminent power in the women’s game.She knows, though, that those who follow in her footsteps may well cast her into shade. What was most striking, talking to those involved with Barcelona Femení last month for an article The Times published this week, was their conviction that they have barely scratched the surface of their potential.“There are girls here who have been in a professional environment since the age of 12,” Markel Zubizarreta, the club’s sporting director, said. “The talent is the same, but when they turn professional, they will be much better prepared.”Torrejón has seen that firsthand, as the first products of Barcelona’s investment in youth start to drip feed into the club’s first team. “The players who are 15, 18, 20 have had a physical training that will help them compete at the professional level,” she said.The same process, of course, is playing out at dozens of clubs across Europe, where the first generation to have been given access to the sort of resources their male equivalents have enjoyed for decades are only just emerging. And that raises a compelling question: What if the boom in women’s soccer — in Europe, at least — is not actually the boom at all? What if this is just the prelude?CorrespondenceIt might seem an exaggeration, but this newsletter may have finally reached its zenith, thanks to a single sentence from Shane Thomas. I have an overwhelming sensation of despair, because I am self-aware enough to recognize that I will never write a sentence more compelling than this: “The biggest criticism of Batman is that he uses all his wealth to fight crime, but comparatively little of it to tackle crime’s underlying causes.”It would spoil it, just a little, if I told you how that sentence came up — it was in a thoughtful, cogent email related to last week’s column on the problems caused, and solved, by the presence of outsize individuals in the context of a team — so I will not. Better, I think, to use the time wondering what more Batman could be doing.Leon Joffe, on the other hand, leapt to the defense of a different superhero, though one who, if we are all being honest, also did very little to combat the underlying causes of crime.“I have a different recollection of Roy of the Rovers than the one you describe,” he wrote. “Goals were not only scored by Roy, but always a team effort, with one of the teammates usually passing expertly to the goal scorer. Blaming a young soccer captain’s playing style, years later, on the comic book, is quite weird.”Lana Harrigan, meanwhile, pointed out that Ronaldo can hardly be blamed for Manchester United’s defense. “I’m no tactician,” Lana wrote, “but the defense looks pitiful at times.” Gary Brown went one step further, arguing that “the argument that Ronaldo and the pressing game don’t mix would be stronger if United had routinely played a pressing came before his return. Which we didn’t. Perhaps CR7 makes it difficult to improve that part of the game, but I don’t think he’s single-handedly turned off something that in truth was scarcely ever turned on.”Do Manchester United’s issues run deeper than Cristiano Ronaldo? Hmmm ….Peter Powell/EPA, via ShutterstockAnd we’ll finish, in finest newsletter style, with one of the blue-sky ideas that — until we got into the business of critiquing Batman’s methods — has long been this missive’s strong suit.“I am bothered by the intentional use of fouls to benefit a team,” wrote Paul Sumpter. “It is a real detriment to the excitement of the game, but issuing red cards risks ruining the contest, as it did during the Liverpool-Atlético Madrid game. The hope would be that the threat of a red card would largely stop players committing professional fouls. I am not so sure. So, I would like to see an experiment whereby the offending player is sent off but the team can replace them with a substitute, if they have not already used all their allowed substitutes.”This is an idea worth exploring — as is an orange card, where a player guilty of a tactical foul is taken out of the game for 10 minutes, say — but my immediate worry would be that this basically guarantees three significant tactical fouls per team, per game. More

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    Manchester United’s Perfect Feedback Loop

    Title contender, crisis club or cash cow? What you see in United depends, largely, on what you want to see.Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in the mood to play the hits. Manchester United’s most ardent fans, he said, were “the best in the world.” The players who had the privilege to wear the team’s colors were the “luckiest” on the planet. And, of course, there was the inevitable nod to history, to the club’s “habit” of clawing victory from the maw of defeat.Solskjaer was glowing, and with good reason. United had just given Atalanta a two-goal head start in the Champions League and recovered to win regardless. Cristiano Ronaldo had delivered, yet again. United had been at the bottom of its group at halftime, flirting with elimination, but now it sat comfortably at the top. The fans sang Solskjaer’s name as he gave his postmatch television interviews.Once he had signed off, the British broadcast feed cut back to the studio. The mood, there, was starkly different. Paul Scholes, the former Manchester United midfielder appearing as one of the guests, was not feeling particularly stirred. “That first half worried me,” he said. His voice was stern, his look grave. United faces Liverpool on Sunday. Scholes felt storm clouds gathering.As he spoke, footage played of United’s rousing winner. Ronaldo’s header arrowed into the corner of the goal. “Imagine Jürgen Klopp watching that,” Scholes intoned. Ronaldo tore off in celebration, another stitch woven into the fabric of his legend. “He’ll be rubbing his hands together.” Old Trafford was melting into delirium. “Play like that against Liverpool, and see what happens.”In that contrast lies the very essence of the modern Manchester United, a club where what the eyes see and what the ears hear do not always — or even often — match up. It has been like this almost since the start of Solskjaer’s reign, three years ago, this ability to jumble the senses, to be everything and nothing, to be progress and stasis, promise and despair, success and failure all at the same time. United has become soccer team as Rorschach test: What you see in the spreading ink blot in front of you depends, largely, on what you want to see.The main complaint from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s critics is that he doesn’t always appear to know what he’s doing with his team.Carl Recine/Action Images Via ReutersIn many ways, of course, that is probably less than ideal. As a general rule, the teams that win trophies are not the ones that radically divide opinion, or the ones whose performances oscillate wildly both within and between games, or the ones who never seem to be more than a couple of defeats from full-blown crisis. League titles, in particular, go to the strong and the steady, the clear and the convincing.And that, of course, is what is supposed to be Manchester United’s priority. That is what Scholes believes is the club’s rightful place, the cornerstone of soccer’s natural order: There can be true harmony and balance in all things only if, at the end of May, Manchester United is crowned the best team in the Premier League.But that is not, of course, Manchester United’s only priority. It is — and this will read as criticism only if you want to read it as criticism — concerned with not only being the best team in England, but being the biggest club, too. That might, in a certain light, feel like little more than semantics. It is not.In a sporting sense, United’s tendency to act as a sort of fuel cell for an apparently inexhaustible debate is very obviously a drawback, a reasonably damning indictment of Solskjaer’s reign in and of itself. Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool are not subject to such wild swings in popular perception. Their exact places in England’s pecking order might be disputed, but that they belong at the very summit is not.The sporting sense, though, is not the whole picture. It is easy to chide United every three months, when its leading executives use their quarterly call with investors to primp and preen over their social media engagement figures. It is simple to see this as yet more proof of how capitalism and/or technology has corrupted the game, how out of line United’s priorities are, how confused its leaders have become about whether their job is to win titles or accrue followers on Instagram.If United’s main business is soccer, mythology and commercial revenue aren’t far behind.Phil Noble/ReutersThe truth is a little of both. It is an awkward coexistence, but clubs are both sports teams and businesses. Those numbers are not brought up as a transparent bid to distract private equity managers from poor performance on the field. They are brought up because the private equity managers probably care about them as much as — or even more than — they care about whether United won or lost last weekend. Those numbers matter.And from that point of view, it is hard to conceive of any strategy better than this version of Manchester United, with all of its inconsistencies and contradictions, each one open to every interpretation imaginable. It is the gift that keeps on giving, a virtuous circle, the highest attainable form of sport as content machine. Presumably by accident, rather than design, Manchester United finds itself in the Platonic ideal of an engagement sweet spot.It is perfect: The presence of so many enormously talented players means that the team is never bad, not in any real sense. It is never going to be out of contention for a place in the Champions League, and so it is never going to be in real danger of missing out on the vital revenue streams offered by European soccer.Most of the time, the team will win: occasionally convincingly, occasionally fortunately, occasionally despite all available evidence suggesting that it really should not have. But, crucially, it will not win all of the time. Winning all of the time is what fans want, of course, but it is not, in truth, a particularly compelling story. If a team wins all of the time, there is not much to say. Look at Bayern Munich, or Paris St.-Germain, or even Manchester City. They win, again and again, and the world shrugs.Not Manchester United, though. Sometimes, United will lose. It will never lose often enough to be in genuine peril of finishing, say, ninth — the extraordinary players will see to that, remember — but sometimes having those players is not enough. Sometimes the opposition will have a better system, or United will be less than the sum of its parts, and so sometimes United will lose.No matter what happens, though, there will be something to talk about. Regardless of whether the dice fall for United in any particular game, it will be compelling. The team can be whatever you want it to be: a side building momentum, or one threatening to malfunction. Occasionally, as Scholes proved, it can be both of those things at the same time. The pictures can say one thing, and the words another.Cristiano Ronaldo papered over some more of United’s problems this week.Peter Powell/EPA, via ShutterstockIt leaves every game fraught with meaning. Every single fixture could be the start of something or the end, the day that the club rises to indisputable glory or sinks into unabashed crisis. There will always be something to say, a position to take, an opinion to air. And that means there is always something to sell, because there is always something to watch or something to hear or something to read or something to click. It means Manchester United is always there, front and center, pumping tons and tons of content out into the atmosphere.This weekend, it is entirely feasible that Manchester United will beat Liverpool. Or lose to Liverpool. Or draw with Liverpool. There will be a result, but that is not the same as a conclusion. Not one that lasts, anyway, not one that holds beyond the next game, or the game after that. There never will be, not with these owners, not with this team, not with this manager. Manchester United will just keep on as it is, forever near and forever distant, soccer’s most reliable source of engagement, a club caught in its own perfect feedback loop.No Good Guys HereNewcastle asked its fans this week to stop wearing robes to matches “if they would not ordinarily wear such attire.”Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesThis is not something that will be said regularly, in the months and years to come, but it was just about possible to have a little sympathy for Newcastle United’s new ownership group this week. Not for the defeat against Tottenham, of course. Not for firing Manager Steve Bruce. Not even for having to issue a statement urging the club’s fans to stop dressing up in thobes and kaffiyehs because it is, you know, offensive.No, the one aspect that made it just about possible to see the Saudi-backed consortium’s point of view was the decision by the rest of the Premier League to place a temporary stay on related party transactions: that is, deals in which companies linked to a club’s owner suddenly and entirely coincidentally decide they want to spend vast sums of money sponsoring the owner’s team.Some 18 of Newcastle’s Premier League colleagues/rivals backed the motion, with a view to implementing some sort of permanent restriction on the practice in the future. Manchester City abstained from the vote, presumably aware that backing it would be, well, hypocrisy of the highest order.Newcastle’s immediate response was to threaten legal action against the Premier League. This is not uncomplicated, of course, because it is — when you think about it — basically an admission that getting a load of Saudi companies to sponsor a Saudi-backed team so as to fast-track its growth was a fundamental part of the business plan.But that is, perhaps, balanced out — in this case — by the fact that a host of Premier League teams have been doing this for years. And not just Manchester City, the world’s foremost billboard for Etisalat. There is Leicester City, too, with its home, the King Power Stadium. It is curious that Everton’s training ground is sponsored by USM: What benefit a Russian mining giant gets from having its name splashed on a club’s changing rooms is anyone’s guess, but it is apparently worthwhile.This, you see, is the problem with the Premier League’s cynical decision to avoid anything approaching morality as long as the money keeps on flowing. It is an appealing approach, because it absolves the league of having to make any tricky, subjective decisions. Until, that is, something so craven comes along that everyone else’s cravenness pales in comparison. Opting out is not a tenable position in the long run. It is time that English soccer learned that.Enough, Gianni. Enough.Gianni Infantino: a man with a (very bad) plan.Harold Cunningham/Agence France-Presse, via Fifa/Afp Via Getty ImagesIn a way, you have to admire Gianni Infantino. By now, those occupying what we might call soccer’s Blue Sky executive level have conjured so many risibly absurd ideas in such rapid succession that we should be inured to it. They should not be able to plumb new depths of stupidity. Those wells should have been tapped long ago.Credit, then, to Infantino for boldly going lower than anyone else had thus far dared to go. A World Cup every two years, it turns out, is just entry-level stuff. The real galaxy brain idea was decreeing, as he did to various European federations this week, that teams would not be allowed to compete in consecutive tournaments if, and when, the competition goes biennial.That’s right. Infantino, the president of FIFA, the most powerful person in the game, the man responsible for safeguarding the biggest sport on the planet, has considered taking the World Cup and splitting it in two, so that it is not, in fact, a World Cup at all. Infantino appears to think that if you cut a golden goose in half, there is a chance you might get two golden geese.And yet there is reason to be thankful, too. Infantino might not quite have worked out King Solomon’s gambit, but in doing so he has, at least, exposed the fact that FIFA’s plan to double the number of World Cups is crumbling.The powerful European and South American confederations staunchly oppose it. So do the European Union and the International Olympic Committee. FIFPro, the players’ union, is against it. There is a reason for this. It is a bad idea.CorrespondenceA man, a medal and a lesson. Read on for his story.Lisi Niesner/ReutersSoccer, it turns out, is not the only sport with something of an aversion to celebrating second place. “There is the N.H.L.,” wrote David Sullivan. “No second-place trophies or medals, and a similar tradition/superstition that any team award less than the Stanley Cup itself is to be spurned.“The league now awards the Presidents’ Trophy to the team with the best regular season record, but there are documented cases of players looking down, looking away, acting awkward, refusing to acknowledge or touch the trophy they won, and skating away as quickly as possible.”There are, at least, trophies handed out for winning divisional titles, something that was pointed out to me while “researching” — it looks a lot like asking the most recent American I have corresponded with — last week’s column. You can win, in a way, multiple times in most of North America’s major leagues, so even the teams that lose finals can reflect on the fact that they are winners.But there can be no question whatsoever about the most poignant and uplifting email of the week, and possibly ever. I don’t want to edit it too much, even for length, because it deserves your full attention.“I’m 22, and won two silver and one bronze medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games,” wrote Jaryd Clifford. “My silvers came in the 5000m (on the hottest running day of my life — “feels like 43 degrees and 85 percent humidity”) and the marathon (I spewed my guts up for the last 12 kilometers*).[*NOTE: I have left this phrase in to prove that Jaryd is Australian. It may be the most Australian phrase imaginable.]“I was defending world champion in the 5000m and world-record holder in the marathon. I learned that disappointment can coexist with pride, particularly when you know you gave it everything. I’m disappointed I couldn’t win that gold medal, but I’m proud that I never gave up and that I gave it everything I had.Jaryd Clifford of Australia collapsed after finishing second in a Paralympic marathon in Tokyo.Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press“What more can you do? Sometimes you’re just beaten by a better opponent on that day. For me, the silver represents the journey I’ve been on from my early teens to now, all the blood, sweat and tears. It also motivates me to one day turn it into gold. My teammate, Scott Reardon, told me as I sat in an ice bath after the 5000m that “sometimes it takes silver to win gold.” In 2012, he won silver/lost gold by 0.03 seconds in the 100m. In 2016, he won gold, he says, because of the lessons he learned from his silver.”That last sentence is a far better encapsulation of what I was trying to express than I managed in a thousand words or so, as it happens. (I’ll be adding Jaryd to the list of people who aren’t allowed to email too often, for fear of showing me up.) You can either see it as losing gold, or you can see it as winning silver. The latter seems far healthier to me and, more important, to Jaryd. More

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    Premier League Vote Targets Saudi Spending at Newcastle

    The Premier League imposed a moratorium on sponsorships linked to investors only days after a Saudi-led group took control of one of its teams.Fearing that the arrival of another deep-pocketed ownership group from the Gulf might soon put even their own billionaire owners at a competitive disadvantage, Premier League teams voted Monday to restrict — for a short time at least — the new Saudi Arabian owners of Newcastle United from injecting some of their vast wealth into their newly acquired soccer team.The decision, reached at an emergency meeting of the league’s clubs, imposed a moratorium on teams’ signing sponsorship deals with brands or companies linked to their investors. The temporary rule change — to be in place for less than a month while a permanent one is considered — is not specific to Newcastle but is a clear sign of the worry among Premier League teams that a group led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund could soon remake the economic and competitive state of the league.The clubs are concerned that Newcastle, now backed by resources of one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, will quickly be able to buy its way to success in a manner similar to Manchester City, the Premier League team bought in 2008 by the brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi. Manchester City financed its rise from mid-table strugglers to perennial champions partly through a series of sponsorship deals with companies tied to the United Arab Emirates.Those deals, with partners like Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi’s department of culture and tourism, are the subject of an ongoing dispute about possible violations of Premier League cost-control regulations.The degree of concern among Newcastle’s rivals was clear when it came to voting on the new regulation on Monday: 18 teams voted for the temporary ban, with only Newcastle opposed to it. Manchester City, after consulting with its lawyers, abstained.With the moratorium in place, the Premier League has now asked for feedback from its teams while it considers introducing a permanent rule outlawing so-called related party sponsorships, or at least a requirement that such deals be vetted for fair-market value by industry experts.Manchester City is not the only team in the Premier League with sponsors linked to its investors; under its previous owner, Mike Ashley, Newcastle plastered its stadium, St. James’s Park, in advertising for his discount sportswear company.But the timing of Monday’s emergency meeting left little doubt about its focus: It came one day after Newcastle played its first game under its new ownership, and after home fans rose as one before kickoff to cheer the team’s new Saudi chairman.The takeover of Newcastle had been delayed for more than a year but finally got the go ahead after the Premier League said the P.I.F. provided “legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle Football Club.”The Premier League has declined to provide details of those assurances. The chairman of the multibillion-dollar fund is Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, and Newcastle’s new chairman, Yasir al-Rumayyan, is the governor of the P.I.F. and the chairman of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company.“Newcastle fans will love it but for the rest of us it just means there is a new superpower in Newcastle — we cannot avoid that,” Liverpool’s German manager, Jürgen Klopp, said last week when asked about the possible effect of an infusion of Saudi investment into one club. “Money cannot buy everything but over time they will have enough money to make a few wrong decisions, then make the right decisions, and then they will be where they want to be in the long term.”Team owners have privately fumed over the Premier League’s handling of the takeover, complaining that they were not informed about the progress of the sale until the transfer of ownership was announced on Oct. 7. Rival teams are also concerned, given the Premier League’s insistence that the P.I.F. is now viewed as separate from the Saudi state, that any sponsors from the kingdom not directly affiliated to the fund will not be barred regardless of the new rules.One version of a working document reviewed by The New York Times stated that “entities controlled by the same government” that had a stake in a Premier League team could not become a sponsor of that club. The Premier League declined to comment, and it has not made any public comment on the Newcastle sale beyond its news release announcing that the deal had been completed.The Premier League has struggled in the past, however, to enforce its cost-control regulations. An investigation into whether Manchester City breached the league’s financial regulations has now stretched into its third year with little sign that a resolution is near. City filed a series of legal motions that slowed the process, drawing a rebuke earlier this year from a senior judge who wrote, “It is surprising, and a matter of legitimate public concern, that so little progress has been made after two and a half years — during which, it may be noted, the club has twice been crowned as Premier League champions.”The type of financial regulations now being discussed by the Premier League are similar to rules that a group of 12 leading European teams had sought to include this spring in the failed effort to create a European Super League.Several of the clubs involved in the Super League planning, including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Liverpool, had expressed concerns about their ability to compete financially with teams — notably City and Qatar-backed Paris St.-Germain — who could draw upon seemingly bottomless resources from outside of the game. “Club revenue must be obtained on an arm’s length basis,” one of the regulations in the Super League plans stated. Teams that broke those regulations faced permanent expulsion from the competition.Some of those same cost-control ideas, though, are now on the table at the Premier League, which will soon face outside scrutiny of its operations as well. Britain’s government this spring appointed a lawmaker, Tracey Crouch, to review soccer governance. Crouch has suggested that she will recommend the appointment of an independent regulator for the sport. More

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    Saudi Arabia, Newcastle and Soccer’s Worship of Money

    The sale of a Premier League team symbolizes a sport’s unashamed devotion to wealth above all else.One single sentence, printed in block capitals, emblazoned on a laminated banner, captured it all: all of the pain and resentment and angst and fury of all those years spent under the turgid, wearying, bleak years of Mike Ashley’s ownership of Newcastle United, that decade and a half when the club’s owner seemed to take pleasure, after a while, in draining his own fans of spirit, and pleasure, and hope.The sentence on the banner made its first appearance nearly seven years ago, at what turned out to be just the halfway point of Ashley’s tenure. It was a reference to that dispiriting habit his club had developed of spurning England’s two domestic cups — the two trophies the club had even the slimmest chance of winning — so much that, often, the team looked as if it was trying to get knocked out early on purpose.It had been prepared for precisely one of those occasions. Newcastle was away at Leicester in the F.A. Cup in January 2015. Or a team playing as Newcastle was, anyway: As ever in the cups, Newcastle had sent out a weakened side, a selection of reserves and fringe players and supporting acts. The headliners had been held back in order to attend to the real business of finishing 15th in the Premier League.Newcastle, as the fans who had traveled to watch their team would have expected, duly lost. It was the very predictability that they were protesting, during the game, when they unfurled the banner.“We do not demand a team that wins,” it read, “we demand a club that tries.”A refrain, born in frustration, became a rallying cry.David Klein/ReutersThe slogan has become a familiar one, as pithy and compelling a summation of everything that Newcastle had been reduced to under Ashley. The banner itself has made occasional appearances over the years, too, as protests have flashed and mutiny has simmered.It was back again, on Thursday evening, for what may prove to be its last hurrah. The circumstances, this time, were a little different: It was carried around not as a rallying cry for an uprising, but as a standard of a battle that had been won. Ashley, at last, was gone, and thousands of Newcastle fans had made their way to St. James’s Park, their shining castle on the hill, to celebrate.Few, if any, of their fellow fans would begrudge them that. Something of a myth has been allowed to take hold, over the last few years, about Newcastle’s fans. They have developed a reputation for being equal parts demanding and delusional, for believing their club uniquely deserving of a restoration to a place of prominence in English soccer’s firmament that it never, really, occupied in the first place.The reality is almost exactly the opposite. All Newcastle’s fans have ever really asked for is a team that is mildly entertaining to watch, and a bit of effort from those charged with running the club. The banner made that perfectly clear. Ashley’s affront was not failing to win; it was robbing them of the hope that they might.That represents the ultimate betrayal of ownership to all fans, and though their estimations of their own suffering have long been hugely overstated — Newcastle’s ordeal of permanent irrelevance in the Premier League is not quite of the same order as that of Bury, a club that no longer exists, or that of the countless Football League teams to have brushed liquidation in recent years — there has been an abundance of sympathy to their plight. Only at Sunderland, Newcastle’s neighbor and bitter rival, might anyone regret the departure of Ashley, and the end of Newcastle’s nightmare.Any owner not named Mike Ashley would have found support in Newcastle.Lindsey Parnaby/EPA, via ShutterstockBut that was not the only thing the crowd had gathered to celebrate on Thursday. There was glee, too, at the start of what appears to be a dream. It is not just that Newcastle has been freed from Ashley, it is that it has been liberated by the sort of owner who seems to promise a club that tries and a team that wins.Newcastle is now the richest club in soccer, backed by the unimaginable wealth of the Public Investment Fund, the investment vehicle of Saudi Arabia but absolutely not — and apologies if this makes no sense — in any way linked to the Saudi state, even though Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s crown prince and de facto ruler, is the chairman of the P.I.F., and even though it describes itself as a “sovereign” wealth fund, which rather gives away where its money comes from.It was that distinction that persuaded the Premier League to wave the deal through. When it held up the Saudi-led takeover last year, the league had not, it turned out, been worried that Saudi Arabia was pirating its content through a rogue television broadcaster, or that it had banned BeIN Sports, one of league’s key network partners, from operating in its territory, or even about the kingdom’s jailing of women’s rights activists or the persecution of dissidents or the chemical castration of gay people or the brutal, unrelenting war in Yemen or the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.No, the Premier League just needed to be reassured that the Mohammed bin Salman who runs Saudi Arabia would not interfere with the decisions of the Mohammed bin Salman who runs Saudi Arabia’s sovereign investment fund.Once the league had those promises, the P.I.F. was free to acquire 80 percent of one of the league’s member clubs and to begin to think about how to take on Manchester City, a club definitely not owned by Abu Dhabi, in the Premier League and Paris St.-Germain, a club totally separate from the Qatari state, in the Champions League.And a handful of Newcastle fans were free to gather outside St. James’s Park in thobes and headdresses, waving the Saudi flag, inscribed with the shahada, while singing that their club had, at last, been returned to them.This, of course, is the point of the whole thing. Saudi Arabia, and its crown prince in particular, is obsessed with its image. It is why it runs troll farms in Riyadh dedicated to swarming anyone who dares to criticize the regime online. It is why it does not tolerate dissent. It is why Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered, according to United States intelligence, by a hit squad acting on the orders of Salman, the man who runs the country and the one who is the chairman of the fund that now owns a Premier League soccer team.There are plenty of Newcastle fans who are uneasy about that connection, about the fact that it is now possible to write a sentence in which the murder of a journalist and Newcastle United both feature.But there are plenty more — a supporters’ trust survey last year found that almost 97 percent were in favor of the Saudi takeover — who are willing to turn a blind eye to that ethical dilemma, to assert that their new owner is no worse than Manchester City’s, or to point out that Liverpool is sponsored by a bank that has been accused of laundering the profits of drug cartels, or to suggest that since Britain is happy to sell arms to the Saudis, it might as well sell its soccer teams, to claim that when everything is rotten there is nothing to do but succumb to putrefaction.Many Newcastle fans accused the Premier League of blocking the sale of the club to a Saudi-led group.Scott Heppell/ReutersAnd there are others still — the ones in the thobes, the ones with the Saudi flag in their social media avatars, the ones who have issued scrawls of abuse to Khashoggi’s widow for daring to challenge the morality of the takeover — who are perfectly happy to embrace it, to do precisely what the Saudis want them to do.The P.I.F. has not bought Newcastle because it loves soccer, or England’s northeast, or the beach at Tynemouth or the leafy streets of Gosforth or the grand Georgian facades of Gray Street.It has bought Newcastle to diversify its economy, to enmesh strategic allegiances in sport and culture, to rehabilitate its image, to make people think of Saudi Arabia and soccer before they think of Saudi Arabia and starving children in Yemen. The fact that it gets a free vanguard of vitriolic advocates on social media — just as Abu Dhabi has managed at Manchester City — is a bonus.Newcastle United, and those fans, are being used, just as City is being used and just as P.S.G. is being used and Chelsea is being used, just as soccer as a whole is being used and, in the process, corrupted. And yes, those fans are complicit in it. But they are not the only ones to blame.So, too, are the authorities that have allowed this to happen, time and time again: the Premier League, with the “ownership neutral” stance that it wears with such pride, and the Football Association and UEFA and FIFA and all the rest of them, the bodies that are supposed to protect and cherish the sport but have instead sold it off to the highest bidder.And so, too, are the rest of us: the journalists and the commentators and the observers and the fans, everyone who has reveled in the conspicuous consumption of transfer deadline day, anyone who has ever taken the Deloitte Money League as a sign of the sport’s health, rather than a damning indictment of its venality, its naked, unashamed worship of money.Gulf riches transformed Manchester City into a championship team. Newcastle fans will be hoping the same will happen at their club.Pool photo by Dave Thompson/EPA, via ShutterstockA year or so after Newcastle’s fans unfurled that banner, Everton was playing away at Aston Villa. Their club had just been taken over, too, this time by Farhad Moshiri, a British-Iranian businessman with a personal fortune of impossible vastness. They, too, could not believe their luck. “We’re rich,” they sang that night, over and over again, a profanity wedged between those two words.There is a warning in there, of course — five years later, Everton is roughly where it used to be in the Premier League table, but about $500 million in transfer fees worse off — but the story does not require a particularly deep reading. For 30 years, the Premier League has lionized wealth — as a means to an end, and now, after a while, as an end in itself.The natural, logical, unavoidable conclusion of that culture is Newcastle fans gathering outside St. James’s Park in traditional Saudi dress. The only way for clubs to compete, the only way for owners to restore hope in its purest form, is money. And it is Saudi Arabia that has the most money.It is money that has distorted soccer to such an extent that all dreams but one are now dead. There is no hope of a team’s breaking through thanks to a particularly gifted crop of youngsters who emerge from its academy. There is precious little belief that an inspirational manager, with a keen eye for talent, will be enough to challenge the petroclubs for league titles and European trophies.The only thing that can do that, the only dream that survives, is that your club will, somehow, one day wake up with more money than everyone else. That, in effect, is what happened to Newcastle on Thursday: the sudden, jolting realization that its wildest fantasy had come true; not just that its purgatory was over, but that its paradise had arrived.It is easy to point at those fans and say that they are the problem — that it is their willingness to pay any price for success that means that yet another club that prides itself as a community institution is now in the hands of an owner who is willing to use it for selfish ends; that they are apparently ready to service the needs of the murderous regime that is seeking to deploy soccer to launder its image.But they are not the problem; they are the consequence of the problem. They are the end point of an era and a culture obsessed with acquisition, that believes ambition can be measured only in millions of dollars, that cherishes those who spend and castigates those who do not, that has welcomed money, whatever its provenance, as an objective good, and never questioned, not once, what that money might want to do, what its purpose might be.This is the answer. This is where that path leads — to a place where the only hope that fans have is money, where dreams are built on money, and where there is no such thing as a price too high to pay.CorrespondenceMore examples this week of countries that field multiple national teams, courtesy of Sean O’Brien. “It’s basically just a list of former colonies that are now dependent or unincorporated territories — mostly in the Caribbean,” Sean wrote, mentioning American Samoa and Puerto Rico, Aruba and Curaçao.The United Kingdom features again here: Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and Bermuda all field their own national teams. I stand wholeheartedly corrected, by both Sean and Joe Chihade, who wrote along similar lines, but mentioned Gibraltar as well. This is going to get uncomfortably political, isn’t it? And I only feel entitled to do jokes about Britain.Alphonso Davies and Canada earned a 1-1 draw at Mexico in a World Cup qualifier on Thursday, a lift to the Canadians’ campaign to qualify for the finals for the first time since 1986.Jose Mendez/EPA, via ShutterstockYusuke Toyoda, meanwhile, wonders whether we are making enough effort to pronounce players’ names, citing the estimable Derek Rae. “This seems to plague Brazilian and Portuguese players the most (I remember being surprised that Ronaldinho is pronounced more like ‘Hu-now-jee-new’),” Yusuke wrote. “My question is, how hard would it be to fix this? If the Premier League goes to the trouble of creating a starting XI video for every player, couldn’t they also have each player say his name?”That is, I believe, the case: I have several friends — including a couple on Set Piece Menu — who work as commentators and are extremely pious about the accuracy of their pronunciations. The Premier League asks each and every player, every season, how they wish to be mentioned, and then sends a phonetic pronunciation to every broadcaster.Of course, that does not mean they always get it right. Commentary is an extremely difficult skill to master, and there are moments when they may slip. My personal belief — and I say this as someone with a name that lots and lots of people, all over the world, find entirely baffling — is that as long as you make an effort, then that should be enough.That, perhaps, is a view rooted in privilege, but I would imagine most people, like me, when they hear someone have a good go at a name that does not come naturally — it’s the double R, in my case: I tend to get Roly, Lolly, Lori and, of course, that old standby Roy* — are content to know that someone is showing them the respect of trying, and willing to go along with whatever works best. I’ve certainly never known a player to complain about it, as long as an attempt is made in good faith.[*The other day, someone tried to get my attention by calling me “Greg.” Eventually, I had to respond, and I felt intimidated by how awkward it would be to correct them, so I didn’t say anything. I then immediately texted my wife to say that, from now on, for the sake of good manners, should we ever find ourselves together with that person, she should refer to me as Greg so as to spare that person’s blushes. I don’t know why I’m phrasing this so carefully. The person is clearly not a reader.] More

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    In Newcastle, Songs Drown Out the Hard Questions

    As long-suffering fans cheered the arrival of Saudi riches at their club, talk of the new owners’ plans and the current team’s flaws took the day off.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.Callum Wilson got Newcastle off to a flying start by scoring in the second minute.Scott Heppell/ReutersNewcastle’s new Saudi chairman, Yasir al-Rumayyan, lower left, sat with the minority owner Amanda Staveley, right.Peter Powell/EPA, via ShutterstockBuoyant before the match, they and the crowd were soon watching Tottenham attackers slice through their team.Peter Powell/EPA, via ShutterstockThat 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 took control of the match, and silenced the crowd, with three first-half goals.Peter Powell/EPA, via ShutterstockTottenham 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. More

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    Saudi-Led Group Completes Purchase of Newcastle United

    The sale of the Premier League team to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund was met by joy in the streets and criticism from human rights groups and others.A group led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign investment fund completed its purchase of the Premier League soccer team Newcastle United on Thursday, moving swiftly to overcome objections to its yearslong pursuit of a place as an owner in one of the world’s most prominent sporting competitions.The sale instantly transformed Newcastle, an underachieving club whose home in the north of England is far from the power centers of European soccer, into theoretically one of the richest teams in the world, backed by the wealth of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, a vehicle that controls assets worth $500 billion.But it also raised new questions about the economics and morality of allowing a nation state, and particularly one accused of serious human rights abuses, into the elite club of Premier League owners.The announcement that the Saudi-led group had acquired full control of the club from its previous owner, the retail tycoon Mike Ashley, came days after Saudi Arabia resolved the obstacle that had blocked a similar agreement last year.Since 2017, Saudi Arabia has not only blocked the Qatari sports network beIN Sports — one of the Premier League’s most lucrative broadcast partners — from operating within its territory, as part of a broader dispute between the two nations, but it has also been accused of both hosting and running a rogue network that pirated beIN’s content.Last year, as the Saudi-led bid to take charge of Newcastle appeared to gather momentum, beIN Sports demanded the Premier League refuse to approve the takeover. Eventually, the Saudi consortium withdrew its offer before the Premier League had to make a definitive decision.But while it emerged on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia had lifted its ban on beIN, the Premier League insisted that the resolution of the piracy issue was not the decisive factor in its permitting the takeover to go through.Instead, the league said in a statement on Thursday that it could allow the deal to happen because it had received “legally binding assurances” that the Saudi state would not be in control of one of its member clubs.The league’s statement suggested it is now apparently satisfied that the P.I.F. — chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia — is entirely separate from the Saudi state, where Salman is deputy prime minister, minister of defense and widely regarded as the country’s de facto ruler.Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of the P.I.F., will serve as Newcastle’s nonexecutive chairman, with Amanda Staveley, a British businesswoman, and Jamie Reuben, a billionaire property investor, also sitting on the club’s newly constituted board.All directors of Premier League clubs are subjected to a background check, designed to make sure they are suitable custodians of what are often beloved civic institutions. A number of human rights organizations have made their objections to the deal plain, with Amnesty International calling on the Premier League to change the rules of its owners and directors’ test to ensure that those accused of human rights violations cannot take charge of soccer teams.“Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football,” said Sacha Deshmukh, the organization’s chief executive in Britain.“Under Mohammed bin Salman, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remains dire — with government critics, women’s rights campaigners, Shia activists and human defenders still being harassed and jailed, often after blatantly unfair trials.”In Newcastle, however, fans weary of Ashley’s ownership and the team’s middling performances during his tenure celebrated the sale outside the club’s stadium. Supporters of the club have for months taken to social media to champion the sale, and some even filed legal action against the Premier League to push the takeover forward. More