Nobody is quite sure where the term “kayfabe” originated. It may be a bastardized form of pig Latin, something to do with the actual word “fake.” It may have its roots in the culture of wandering 19th-century carnivals, the world inhabited by P.T. Barnum and the confidence men and the salesmen who sold actual snake oil.
Its modern usage, though, is sufficiently specific that only a relatively small proportion of people would even have a sense of what it means. Kayfabe is, essentially, the illusory cloak that is doggedly draped over professional wrestling: the maintenance of the pretense that what you see in the ring is unscripted, competitive, what we would consider real.
For decades, wrestlers were expected to keep kayfabe even when they were off the clock. The on-screen heroes and villains were not supposed to drive to events together, or to socialize together after them, in case they were seen and the illusion was broken. The omertà had to be upheld at all costs. Breaching it was not just a transgression. It was a betrayal.
As Abraham Josephine Riesman delineates in “Ringmaster,” her magisterial biography of Vince McMahon — close personal friend of Donald Trump and longstanding, all-purpose tyrant behind World Wrestling Entertainment — there came a point, sometime around the 1990s, when that all felt just a little anachronistic.
For anyone other than perhaps the very young, she posits, by that stage most wrestling fans had long understood the nature of what they were watching. More than that, they had delighted in it. Riesman’s theory is that the fun was not so much in seeing who won, but in trying to decode the why. What did this star’s propulsion mean for behind-the-scenes politics? What did this defeat indicate about the next twist in the never-ending tale?
McMahon’s genius — again, in Riesman’s telling — was that he accepted the new reality. Rather than try to cling on to the tradition, to insist on the fantasy, he leaned into the wink and the nudge.
Nobody ever said, of course, that the whole thing was a soap opera, a piece of brutal theater. But the sense that the real story could be found in what was happening backstage, that there was a political process behind who rose and who fell — all of that moved front and center. McMahon invented what Riesman calls neokayfabe.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as McMahon was pioneering this new approach, soccer was changing, too. Delegations of executives from Europe’s major teams looked on jealously at the sporting landscape of the United States, where money flowed freely from television, through glamorous, lucrative leagues, and straight into their counterparts’ pockets.
It was the N.F.L., with its cheerleaders and its fireworks and its sense of event, that caught their eyes particularly, and they returned home with whatever ideas they could mimic. Dance troupes appeared at midtable Premier League games. Flashy graphics and portentous music splashed across television screens. Stadiums modernized, attracting more families. That allowed ticket prices to increase and corporate sections to flourish.
There is absolutely no evidence that anyone within soccer thought to learn anything from professional wrestling. Nobody, most likely, would have even contemplated it. Soccer, after all, belongs to the world of sports. Even McMahon long ago gave up on the idea that wrestling fit neatly under that umbrella. Instead, with typical euphemism, he refers to it as sports entertainment.
And yet, behind differences so glaring they are almost existential, it is possible to make the case that modern soccer — the soccer of the Premier League and the Champions League era, the soccer of social media and saturation coverage, of rolling news channels and cultural hegemony — owes more to professional wrestling than it does to any other industry.
As in wrestling, it is increasingly difficult to escape the sense that the action itself is secondary to all of the noise that surrounds it — the transfer rumors, the coaching feuds, the undeniable theater that now attends the weekly news conferences, and the declarations of pride and fury and rage that follow every utterance, no matter how banal.
Games exist in a pitch of frenzy, but rather than being seen as the purpose of the whole exercise, they serve simply to feed the sport’s insatiable hunger for a story. The overall sweep of each set of 90 minutes is, frequently, lost in a miasma of exaggerated controversy.
Tactics and strategy and individual excellence are acknowledged, of course, but drowned out by an unrelenting focus on the failures — both technical and moral — of the referee, or the defeated manager, or whichever of the players is deemed to have let the team down by trying either too hard to win, or not enough.
That, in many ways, is the root of the sport’s success, of course. As the cultural commentator Neal Gabler has written, we live in an era of entertainment; in order to survive, in order to thrive, every aspect of life has to turn itself into entertainment. It is just that soccer has done it better than most.
Perhaps that is because, more than anything, what soccer has borrowed from wrestling is Riesman’s concept of neokayfabe. Soccer’s global cultural cachet, its status as the most popular pastime that the world has ever known, is both its strength and its weakness.
Its stars are subject to the same sort of intense scrutiny that attends Hollywood’s most famous faces. It is squabbled over by the scions of global capitalism, by nation states, by private equity and public investment funds. It has its heroes, and its villains, and both inspire fierce loyalty and deep-seated loathing. It is an analog product trying to adapt to a modern age. It is among the most valuable forms of content that exist, a saffron for the AppleTV+ age.
The trick, though, is that the sport has managed to subsume all of that — all of these things that happen to it, these currents beyond its control — into part of the story. Just as in wrestling, soccer has been able to take its inner workings, its politicking and its power struggles and even its scandal, and fold it into the entertainment.
That approach applies even when it brings with it the danger that the sport’s integrity — the thing that competitive sports require in the same way as wrestling needs a willing suspension of disbelief, the thing that makes it real — might be compromised.
The principle applies no matter the issue. The suspicion that Manchester City has cheated the sport’s financial rules becomes a chance for Pep Guardiola and his team to hit back at their critics; the arrival of the Saudi state at Newcastle is both a new beginning for a proud, beloved team and a test for the strength of the established order. Even the criticism can be leveraged. Newcastle can be the hero or the villain. Either sells, so either is fine.
The engulfing of Juventus’s hierarchy in allegations that it has committed actual financial crimes is presented as a challenge for a fallen giant. Barcelona has mortgaged its future because of colossal mismanagement, but what does that mean for Pedri? A small cabal of clubs greedily claiming every trophy and every glimmer of talent for themselves is presented not as a dangerous economic trend but as testament to their innate greatness.
The impression — wrong, perhaps, but as previously stated, damaging nonetheless — that the business links between Chelsea’s owners and Saudi Arabia allowed the club to clear the chaff from its squad with surprising ease becomes a controversy, of course, but not one about the sport’s complex relationship with, and its growing vulnerability to, money and power.
Instead, the peril of the accusation is lost in claim and counterclaim over the motivation behind the criticism, lost in soccer’s absolute refusal to understand the world as anything less than unremittingly tribal, the belief that serves as the sport’s underlying assumption, its equivalent of wrestling’s illusion.
Everything, eventually, becomes part of the story. And the story, more than the sport, is what matters. That is what is sold by the broadcasters and the news outlets and everyone else who does so much to sustain a mutually beneficial ecosystem. It is the magic trick that lies behind modern soccer.
It shows you exactly what it is, pulls you behind the curtain, harnesses your outrage and concern and disgust and fear when you see what lurks there, and sells it straight back to you. It is pure, uncut McMahon, a monument of neokayfabe, straight from the sports entertainment playbook, with the emphasis on the entertainment.
Living Your Values
Jordan Henderson is, of course, quite entitled to do whatever he wants. Should he decide to accept an eye-wateringly lucrative offer from Al-Ettifaq, the Saudi club now managed by his friend and former teammate Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool captain will stand accused of sacrificing his professional ambitions, and his dignity, for little more than naked greed.
The reality is more complex than that. Yes, Henderson has spent more than a decade earning several million dollars a year. (At a rough estimate, his pay, after tax, currently stands at around $6 million.) He is a very rich man. It is true that a soccer player’s career is a short one. But a player of Henderson’s profile does not exactly need to worry about how he will cope.
Still, the money reportedly on offer in Saudi Arabia — somewhere north of $30 million a year — can still rightly be described as transformational. Henderson’s primary concern will be his family. If this is his opportunity to provide for them for generations, then it is hardly a sin that he, like several others this summer, might consider it.
What makes it unpalatable that Henderson, in particular, might be coaxed to the relentlessly expansionist Saudi Pro League is that he is not just a soccer player. He has, in recent years, emerged as an eloquent advocate for not only his club but for professional players as a whole. More important, he has been a staunch and sincere ally for L.G.B.T.Q. rights.
“When you see something that is clearly wrong and makes another human being feel excluded you should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them,” he wrote in 2021. “That’s where my own position on homophobia in football is rooted.
“Before I’m a footballer, I’m a parent, a husband, a son, a brother and a friend to the people in my life who matter so much to me. The idea that any of them would feel excluded from playing or attending a football match, simply for being and identifying as who they are, blows my mind.”
There is no reason to claim these are not Henderson’s values. He has every right to move to Saudi Arabia, just as Saudi Arabia has every right to want to improve the quality of its domestic league. He has every right to ignore the criticism that he is moving solely for money.
There comes a point, though, where if you do not live your values, then it is very difficult to assume they are your values at all. If Henderson decides to effectively endorse the geopolitical power-play of a country where homosexuality remains illegal, then not only will it damage the credibility of soccer players who speak out on social issues, it will make it look a lot as if what he says, and what he does, are very different things.
It has always been a source of considerable pride that this section of the newsletter can be considered a collaborative learning space. Not in the sense that you, the reader, benefit from my great and beneficent wisdom, but that I get to take all of your ideas and, several months down the line, pass them off as my own.
So thanks to all of you who wrote in to explain the origins of the Apertura-Clausura system that prevails in so much of Latin America. “I’d be willing to bet it is an Argentine invention,” Fernando Gama wrote. “The first one in Argentina was 1991-92, whereas Colombia and Mexico were 2002.”
His theory on why Argentina adopted the approach is that its teams hoped to “reap a profit if they were available for international friendlies during the European summer.” The benefit, though, may have been different. “It makes sense for each of them to count as a full championship if you take into account how quickly teams get dismantled by the European market. It is very hard to maintain the same base team for an entire year.”
Juan Botella, too, believes that Argentina provided the genesis, certainly for Mexico. In the 1990s, “Mexican fútbol’s ruling elite realized they could make more money following Argentina’s approach,” he wrote. “There was much complaint from traditionalists, who prefer a yearlong tournament with no playoffs.”
Juan and Gustavo Ortiz are on the same side there. “It delivers short-term satisfaction for team directors who want more national championships in detriment to the climax of one champion at the end of the season,” he wrote. “I prefer the Uruguayan system. They play two championships, Apertura and Clausura. Each has a winner that plays the team with the most points won during both tournaments.”
In exchange for educating me, I will endeavor to answer a question from Ken Andrejko. “Do players receive a percentage of the transfer fee when they change clubs?” he asked. No, is the answer, but that’s a bit glib. They do, however, receive a signing-on fee, although that can be both directly and inversely proportional to the size of the transfer fee.
And some wonderful — if belatedly published — pedantry from Iain Dunlop. “You referred to the concept of Newcastle pursuing ‘multiclub’ as a noun,” he wrote. “I would argue that Newcastle and others are in fact attempting to multiclub (I multiclub, you multiclub, he/she multiclubs, etc.), and thus it should be classified as a verb.
In many ways, Iain, that would be preferable to what is actually happening. The precise quote on Newcastle was that the club is looking into “doing multiclub.” (I do multiclub, you do multiclub, he/she/the Saudi state does multiclub.) Does that make it part of the verb? I’m not enough of a grammarian to know.
That’s all for this week. Please keep all of your thoughts coming to firstname.lastname@example.org, but do bear in mind that, after next week’s edition, this newsletter will be stepping aside to make room for our World Cup briefing (which you all should sign up for immediately.)
Beyond that, unfortunately, there is only shadow and doubt. We’ve had plenty of emails over the last week inquiring about what happens to this newsletter — or the people involved in its production — in light of The Times’s decision to reconsider how it covers sports. Your messages of support and well wishes were much appreciated. I’ll tell you what’s happening to the newsletter as soon as anyone tells me.