With the utmost diligence and care, the Newcastle fan pulls a neatly folded green Saudi Arabia flag from a holdall, pulls it taut at the corners, drapes it over his shoulders and walks on.
Across the road, by the big Asda, with equal diligence and equal care, some Manchester City fans are collecting and cataloguing non-perishable donations for the local food bank. Behind them the giant steel beams of the Etihad Stadium glisten in the watery morning light, like candles on the world’s largest birthday cake.
Manchester City v Newcastle is not one thing, however much some would like it to be. No game of football ever is. Even the match itself splinters from the first whistle into a thousand little subplots and mini-dramas. The absorbing tussle between Jack Grealish and Kieran Trippier on the Newcastle right. Kevin De Bruyne’s battles with time, muscle memory and the laws of physics. Nick Pope’s Olympic timewasting.
There is beauty here, too, and in abundance. Fourteen minutes in, Phil Foden barrels in from the right wing, swerving this way and that like a little remote-control car on wheels, creating the first goal off the heel of Sven Botman. All game Foden is a mesmeric, dizzying presence: chest out, legs pumping, eyes constantly darting and interrogating.
Ederson produces one of the great goalkeeping punches, parting the throng and sending the ball flying almost as far as the halfway line. Erling Haaland and Dan Burn have an epic scrap.
I was at the pub with a Newcastle fan on Friday night. He has no love whatsoever for the club’s ownership, has no wish to defend them, indeed has spent the past few months grappling with the moral dimensions of supporting this team in this era. But he also says this: for 90 blessed minutes every weekend, he sets it aside. All of it. The circus beyond is the circus beyond. But this time, this patch of green, these emotions: for him this must always remain pure.
Which seems pretty fair to me. And it explains why so many City and Newcastle fans take such a hostile stance against objections to their club’s ownership. It’s this idea of purity: the sense that whatever is going on in the world or their lives, this devotion and these rituals are simple and timeless. Nobody wants to feel morally conflicted while watching Sean Longstaff. Nobody really wants the head-spinning weirdness of knowing that the same people who paid for Manuel Akanji can also order a precision drone strike. This stuff is tiring, and people are already tired.
Perhaps this is doubly true when you are part of the spectacle itself. The very demands of reaching and competing at the very highest level of football leave little room for ambiguity or self-doubt. Knowing what his employers are doing in Yemen might make Eddie Howe a better person, but it will almost certainly make him a worse coach. This is why it is essentially pointless asking him about the moral dimensions of his job. You can’t ask someone to describe the view if they’re not even looking out of the window.
And so, if your gaze is fixed on Grealish and Bernardo Silva and Bruno Guimarães, you don’t spot the constant scroll of nationalist messaging at the fringes of the pitch. Fly Abu Dhabi’s national airline. Stay at this luxury Abu Dhabi hotel. Make Possible with Abu Dhabi’s national mobile phone network. Visit Abu Dhabi. For virtually the entire history of football, advertising hoardings have offered a sense of place and time, a little snapshot of society at a given moment. This was the brand of pie people were eating in 2006. This was the tool hire company people were using in 1994. At Manchester City, by contrast, the entire canvas is devoted to a single place, for all time.
With a quarter of the game remaining, Nathan Aké wins the ball high, Haaland nudges it on Balotelli-to-Agüero-style, Silva sticks a foot out and shoves it emphatically past Pope and into the net. The goal is not beautiful but the moment is. For most of the game the City players and the City fans have essentially been deadlocked with each other. Give us something. No, you first. Finally, it is the players who speak and the crowd who respond. Haaland celebrates his assist as vociferously as he celebrates any goal. Truly, he is becoming a Pep Guardiola player.
The emotional arc of modern football bends towards simplicity. The narrative arc of modern football bends towards complexity. How do you reconcile these disparate threads? Manchester City temporarily cut Arsenal’s lead at the top of the Premier League to two points. The same Public Investment Fund that assured the Premier League it is not controlled by the Saudi state has described itself as a “sovereign instrumentality” in US court submissions. The stadium rises to applaud Foden. On the pitch the final whistle blows and the players of both sides embrace, soldiers in an army that doesn’t even know it’s fighting in a war.