Football’s a funny old game, as a reasonably famous television pundit in Britain once said. And he was right. One moment you can be beguiled by its beauty, the next you are mugged by its ability to frustrate and disappoint. I chose to support Arsenal Football Club having watched them lose a cup final. Yes, lose. Arsenal, who play at the Emirates Stadium in North London, are one of the English Premier League’s 20 teams. Founded in 1886, they have won countless league and cup competitions in their lifetime and are, arguably, one of the biggest clubs in Europe. You will sometimes hear Arsenal referred to as the Gunners, a nickname that originates in the fact that the club was started by workers at the Woolwich Arsenal Armament factory. Fans are known as affectionately as Gooners. Football, as you will probably have already guessed, also goes by the name of soccer.
In choosing to support Arsenal on the back of a cup final defeat, I learned a hard lesson early in my tenure as a football fan: The good times come with the cast-iron guarantee that there will be bad times that will last as little as a few games or as long as a few seasons. Given this fact, I often ask myself why I put my support for the Arsenal above my mental wellbeing. After all, there’s something inherently masochistic in idolizing an organization that is utterly incapable of communicating with you in a meaningful way, in adoring a team that exploits your (at best) irrational and (at worst) misdirected emotional connections, in loving an entity that will slap you in the face and boldly state, “It’s not me, it’s YOU!”
Let’s just say it gets worse before it gets better.
Wembley, London. May 10, 1980. Trevor Brooking stoops to give underdogs West Ham United an unassailable 13th minute lead in the FA Cup Final against firm favorites Arsenal, prodding a header into the net beyond the outstretched hands of goalkeeping legend Pat Jennings. The Gunners will huff and puff for the next 77 minutes, but they won’t score a goal to tie the game.
As the final whistle blows, and disconsolate Arsenal players drop to their knees on the hallowed turf, a brand new Arsenal fan, aged 9, dislodges himself from his spot on the sofa 144 miles northwest of the stadium, skipping away from the television in search of some juice.
I grew up in Hereford, England. Hereford has its own football team. They finished the 1979/1980 season – the season which ended with Arsenal competing for the FA Cup – fourth from bottom of the fourth division, three divisions below Arsenal. I had seen them play a number of times, and while the spectacle of a football match was appealing to me, Edgar Street (United’s home) held no magic. But, I am unable to conjure up a romantic description of how Arsenal and I collided either. They wore their yellow and blue away kit in the 1980 final (my young self found this combination appealing), and the names of the players as they were spoken by the commentator – Rice, Devine, Brady, Stapleton, Rix – had a certain incantatory quality. I suppose the hows and whys of the ways in which fans come to support the teams they do can be as varied as David Beckham’s hairstyles.
Fellow football fan friends talk of being influenced when it came to choosing their football team. James, a London resident, recalls a neighbor and school friend impressing upon him the reasons why he should support the Gunners. Like me, the 1980 cup final defeat was a defining moment for him in his support of Arsenal. Liverpool, though, were the club of the decade that ended with Arsenal’s cup final loss. They had won the English First Division league title five times, the FA Cup once, and various European cups four times. Paul Matthews, a Liverpool-supporting friend of mine who grew up with me in Hereford, captures the inscrutable way in which football teams impress themselves upon young formative minds: “I can’t remember that moment when I thought I’ll support Liverpool. It just seemed to happen. It had nothing to do with family or anything as my dad wasn’t into football. I was 7 and they were playing in Europe, but it wasn’t live on TV in those days. I remember listening to the games on the radio.” Paul Robertson, another Gooner and friend from Hereford, recalls being caught up in the Guinness-enhanced euphoria of watching games on a big screen in a pub close to the stadium in the late 90s. “Of course, it was easy to support Arsenal in those days as they always seemed to win, and for some inexplicable reason would always score whilst I was in the toilet.”
Emirates Stadium, London. July 31, 2011. The 90 minutes are almost up. Thierry Henry, one time Arsenal hero and record goal scorer, now with the New York Red Bulls, slips a pass through the Arsenal back four to Roy Miller. His cut-back is diverted into the net by Arsenal defender Kyle Bartley. Bartley’s own goal hands the Emirates cup (a pre-season warm-up tournament for Arsenal) to the Red Bulls. The final whistle is greeted with a chorus of boos from the Arsenal fans inside the stadium.
Humiliation is a feeling we can experience as adults, but as an Arsenal fan I find myself exposed to its powers on more occasions than I’m comfortable with each season. Take March of this year, for example. Arsenal are playing in the Carling Cup final (at Wembley). They are favorites to beat Birmingham City. Why? They are more creative than City. They have better and fitter players than City. Arsenal deserve this trophy more than City. It’s been six long and increasingly frustrating years since the Gunners last won a trophy. But, with almost the last kick of the ball, one of Arsenal’s central defenders (Laurent Koscielny) gets in a mix up with his goalkeeper (Wojciech Szczesny) and the ball pings to the feet of Birmingham City’s Obafemi Martins, who strokes it into an empty net.
Never has a winning goal come so easily in a cup final.
If the experience of watching Arsenal for 90 minutes twice, sometimes three times a week between August and May was all I had then I would quickly find myself descending into a turbulent world where hyberbolic statements are lessons in contradiction. Instead, what has kept me with them – and I suppose keeps any fan with his or her team – is what happens on the periphery: That first awe-inspiring visit to the stadium; gloating to friends who support rival teams the day after a win; getting your first replica kit for your birthday or Christmas (and surviving the mockery from friends who support rival teams!); being able to recall random irrelevant facts about obscure squad members from Arsenal teams of the 80s; knowing that even though Ian Wright scored 188 goals in his Arsenal career (1991-1998) to better Cliff Bastin’s Arsenal career (1929-1946) total of 178, it is Thierry Henry, who played for Arsenal between 1999 and 2007, who makes Arsenal fans most proud with 226 goals. Ultimately, our teams become a part of our identity. Just ask Nick Hornby.
And then there were The Invincibles.
Highbury Stadium, London. May 15, 2004. Premier League teams play 38 matches each season. Arsenal played the final game of the 2003/2004 campaign at home to Leicester City. Already champions, they would lift the trophy at the game’s conclusion regardless of the result. A compelling side note though was the fact that they had gone through the season up to this point without losing a single game. Avoiding defeat to Leicester meant that Arsenal would equal Preston North End’s 115 year old record of remaining unbeaten for 22 games.
Predictably, Arsenal were putting their fans through the ringer by half time, going in 1-0 down. Yet, by the time the 90 minutes were up, goals from Henry and Patrick Vieira ensured that Arsenal signed off with a victory. In all, the team’s unbeaten spell ran from May 2003 until October 2004, a time during which they played 49 games, winning 36, drawing 13, and losing none.
As I sit and think about The Invincibles I am struck by the way in which being an Arsenal fan allows me to live anachronically. I can stare at my laptop today and bask in the warm glow of Tony Adams slamming home the winner to clinch the title at home in 1998, or cringe at the remembrance of Nayim’s winning shot from the halfway line for Real Zaragoza in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in 1995. It’s not so much that I want to live this way. Instead, being a football fan demands it because being able to recall the intensity of such moments helps put current struggles – both on and off the field – into context.
Football fans go to games in order to express themselves. The near-tribal atmospheres generated on the terraces around the world express a shared passion for teams that are dear to individuals. And so, two games into the 2011/2012 season, Arsenal fans find themselves divided on the current state of the squad and the ability of the manager, Arsene Wenger, to turn things around. Our young captain and driving-force, Cesc Fabregas, has transferred to Barcelona, his boyhood club, and, along with other departures, has left a gaping hole in the team that needs to be filled by players who have the required experience. With a lineup full of young players in the first years of their careers, Arsenal are yet to score a league goal this season. Those fans who have lost patience with the manager are baying for blood. Others are asking for patience, reminding us that we should have more faith in the manager who gave us The Invincibles. The tension between these two positions is compelling. But, whilst there will always be those who dismiss football as just a game, Bill Shankly, a renowned Liverpool manager who has virtually been beatified by fans since his death in the early 80s, best captures the significance of the world’s game with this concise statement: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
Jay Tarbath is a high school English teacher in Manhattan. His essay An Englishman Bikes in New York appeared here last year. He regularly commutes from New York to London to watch Arsenal games.