Texas Hold ‘Em and Chuck E Cheese: unpacking Jota’s bizarre announcement video after Celtic exit
Jota left Celtic to join Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Ittihad earlier this week
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We open on a shot of a palatial McMansion, all flemish bonds and grey slates, bathed in the glowering blue of a looming dusk. Intermittent spotlights illuminate the facade like tiny bat signals and one sickly tree stands beside the front door like a malnourished Ent beefeater. Who could possibily live in a house like this? Welcome to Through the Keyhole for the criminally insane.
Hard cut to interior; a coffee mug, and a man’s crotch. Thankfully, he is wearing a pair of sensible grey chinos. Perhaps they are a similar shade of grey to the brickwork of his opulent abode, perhaps they are not. It’s hard to tell because for some reason he has seemingly decided to dedicate the full breadth of his lamp arsenal to the exterior of the property while he sips away at a steaming cup of joe in near darkness. Can we deduce from the time of day that his beverage is decaffeinated, or are we dealing with the kind of true maverick who has no regards for a sound and consistent sleep schedule? Only time will tell.
On the wall, a television - albeit one partially obscured by a futon which is placed directly in front of, and facing away from, the screen. It’s enough to give Kevin McCloud an aneurysm. The display, or what we can see of it, flickers with highlights of what appears to be an Old Firm clash between Celtic and Rangers. Again, it’s hard to say for certain because the picture quality resembles one of those blurry, watercolour, football-related birthday cards that you get from your aunt every year.
Suddenly, without warning, a dimly lit face. It’s not just any face though - it’s the face of Nuno Espirito Santo. Or, to be more accurate, the face of Nu-No, Please God, No Espirito Santo. Forget the uncanny valley, this is the uncanny Grand Canyon. The bearded abomination stares - dead-eyed, vacant, and yet somehow punchably smug - with all of the humanity and warmth of a self-service checkout. To call this Artificial Intelligence would be far too kind. This is Artificial Idiocy at best.
Before him, a mulleted boy in green and white wheels away in celebration and the final piece of this nightmarish hellscape falls into place like a cartoon anvil on the roadrunner of expressive human spirit. This is not a novel form of secret service-sponsored psychological torture or an intercepted cyber-terrorist attack, but rather Al-Ittihad’s announcement video for the signing of Jota from Celtic. And believe you me, if you thought the £25 million agreement itself was unhinged, it’s got nothing on this bad lad.
Back to whatever that thing is pretending to be Nuno, standing in a living room picked straight out from IKEA’s new ‘purgatory’ range. The clock on his wall reads 10.10pm. “I hope not to be late”, he deadpans in an accent that is closer to Martian than Portuguese, and with no respect for basic syntax. Just a suggestion, pal, but perhaps then you should spend less time brewing nocturnal mugs of Nescafe and watching reruns of Sportscene, and more time actually getting ready. The ticking of the clock grows louder as we cut to black...
And then, a salvo of sartorial action! Nu-No Way That’s Human buttons up the blazer of a suit that screams ‘alcohol dependent supply teacher’, reaches for a car door handle - not to be confused with a Carte d’Or handle, which would presumably grant access to over-priced tubs of ice cream - and catapults both himself and us, the unconsenting audience, into what appears to be a clip of actual gameplay footage from Need for Speed: Underground. His low-slung supercar streaks through the virtual Saudi night like a pixelated blowtorch through a pallet of unsettling butter; think ‘ill-advised, unwanted Tron reboot starring Vin Diesel’ and you’re halfway there.
Inside the car, Nuno is exhibiting all the emotion of a busted Chuck E Cheese animatronic. A thousand miles per hour he’s doing, and it seems to be providing him with all of the thrill and adrenaline of a precautionary endoscopy. He checks his phone, because there are apparently no traffic laws on this dystopian iteration of the Arabian peninsula, and then a seething metropolis bleeds into focus.
Really though, only when Fast and Furious: Jeddah Drift is over does the true lunacy begin. Nuno, it transpires, has been speeding through the night to get to a playing card shop. As in, a shop that sells playing cards. And seemingly nothing else. Surely there can’t be much demand for such a business, unless I am vastly underestimating the popularity of Texas Hold ‘Em and sleight of hand magic in the Middle East. Also, it’s open until 11pm, and we know this because it has a ‘CLOSED’ sign in the window that not only tells us the premises’ business hours, but the current time too. What kind of needless technological wizardry is this?
The only logical conclusion is that the whole thing is a front for something nefarious and under-handed. Is Jota, we therefore find ourselves asking, in serious peril? Have Celtic inadvertently sold him to a people trafficking ring masquerading as a poker supply store? And why is Nuno, a man who has always shown himself to be a decent and compassionate bloke, acquiescing so readily to the entire operation? Somebody needs to contact Liam Neeson, pronto.
A bell jingles, and Nuno is greeted by a shopkeeper who appears to be the illegitimate love child of Jimmy Krankie and the fella who played Oliver Wood in Harry Potter. (Sean Biggerstaff is his real name, and judging by the fact that this vendor is still squirrelling away on his own at 11pm, perhaps that is something that our humble playing card store might need to consider hiring.)
At once he is both skewed and entirely dull, like a Picasso painting of a Muse fan, and he watches Nuno approach with an undeserved chutzpah for which my vehement disdain knows no bounds. It is the self-satisfied, smirking audacity of the psychopathically evil, and also I hate his stupid maroon V-neck.
“I’m so late”, Nuno exclaims, dashing his previously expressed hopes about not being late. His associate doesn’t seem to care, however. “Hello, Nunoooo” he drawls with the exact intonation of a Eurovision delegate dishing out douze points from Tallinn or Baku or somewhere of that ilk. “We have offers today”, he continues. Offers on what exactly, Oliver Krankie? People? You can’t sell people! There are international conventions about this!
It is at this point that the dialogue then descends into a whole new circle of hellish nonsense. “Sorry, my bro gave me those cards”, Nuno says, without any semblance of context or reason. What cards is he referring to? Who is his bro? Why is this 49-year-old Portuguese man using the word ‘bro’ in earnest conversation? And why is his synthetically-generated face twisting and contorting like a belly dancer’s navel?
“Do you mean that group of cards?”, the shopkeeper responds. On my first watch through - and I am now on something like my 37th - it was at this exact moment that I began to feel my brain trickling out of my left ear. WHAT BLOODY GROUP OF CARDS?!? Because, you see, dear reader, then what happens is that he hands Nuno a full deck with a Celtic badge on it, which the ex-Wolves manager (still sporting his wedding ring, by the way, so lord only knows where in his unevenly lit slate grotto his wife was) greedily accepts with a creepily eager “Yes! Yes! Yeah!” while the background score unexpectedly swells into a sinister, minor key din that wouldn’t feel out of place beneath a pivotal hostage negotiation scene in CSI: Vegas.
How can Nuno be receiving cards that his bro has already given him? And why is he apologising? What has any of this got to do with the fact that Al-Ittihad have signed a new winger? Make it make sense, please! I beg of you!
Said cards are then fanned out across the table to reveal that they each have a picture of a Celtic player emblazoned across them. Such is the browbeaten condition of my frontal lobe, I can’t even be bothered to try and unpack why they are marked with the letters X, Y, J, A, S, H, and P. Some things you have to let slide for the sake of one’s sanity.
Nuno points a chunky finger at the card bearing Jota’s likeness, and we hear his heartbeat thump and thud as pictures of the forward swim across our shot beneath shades of aquamarine, like if Pixar had mocked up the opening titles of a lesser James Bond flick and stapled it to the front end of Finding Nemo.
We return to Nuno’s perturbing kisser just as a slow, maniacal grin spreads across his bronzed cheeks. Even Kubrick himself might have considered this particular gleeful grimace to be a touch excessive. Behind him, visions of trophies apparate and fade among twinkling plumes of stardust. Depending on your disposition, it will either remind you of a Tinkerbell or a Ramsden’s cash for gold advert. Me personally? It reminded me to research the price of cyanide capsules for the day the machines inevitably take over and enslave mankind.
“What do you want to do?”, chimes our smarmy wholesaler, snapping us back to reality, or whatever this stomach-churning interpretation of it is. Nuno looks him dead in the dead eyes, and retorts, “We want to rule the world” (a la Take That, circa 2006). An ambitious sentiment, and not least because the closest Al-Ittihad could ever come is ruling, at the very, very most, Saudi Arabian and Pan-Asian football. Still, it’s nice to have dreams. Ominous, megalomaniacal dreams.
One last hard cut, this time to the canary yellow gates of a stadium, crooked and off-kilter, as thunder and lightning crash and scorch above. Perhaps this was supposed to imbue a sense of awestruck fear into Al-Ittihad’s Pro League rivals. Instead it all comes across as a little bit Treehouse of Horror. At least The Simpsons writers had the decency to ground some of their Halloween specials in something akin to a grasp of reality.
You see, never has a transfer announcement been so unhinged. Never has the argument against the implementation of Artificial Intelligence been so strong. Forget your I, Robots and your 2001: A Space Odysseys, never has a piece of media argued the case more succinctly or effectively for the benefits of us unplugging everything and going to live in small mud hut villages on the banks of the mighty, unchartered Amazon.
Nothing about Al-Ittihad’s video makes the slightest bit of sense, nor does it possess any kind of recognisable, appropriate emotion. Is it supposed to inspire? To frighten? To excite? Who agreed to it, and after they agreed to it, how did they manage to convince those around them that, in the first instance, it was okay, and in the second, they deserved to keep their job? It is, and I don’t say this lightly, a horrifying disgrace; a travesty of creative intent.
And yet, it feels so deeply entwined to the kindred vision of Saudi football at the moment. Why do things with decorum or care when you can instead make them shinier and faster, and ultimately, worse? Things don’t have to make sense so long as they make an impact, and the more money you throw at something, the bigger the crater. It’s sport directed by Michael Bay, sportswashing that aims to flashbang you into submission instead of wooing you with any kind of merit or cognition.
In the end, you could justifiably argue that it’s just an announcement video - a daft Twitter nothingness that will be forgotten by this time next week. But in another, graver way, it’s so much more than that. It’s also emblematic of the direction that Saudi Arabia - through a combination of arrogant will power and the propulsive heft of a tsunami of crude oil - are trying to drag football in. If things continue how they currently are, it is only a matter of time before the sport as a whole is as cold, ugly, and baffling as Jota’s official unveiling.