Part of growing up is saying goodbye to the friends of your youth. Yes, this includes sports teams.
In the back corner of the student center at the college I attended was a large old television—a silver, boxy sort so in vogue in the mid-nineties—that I would plop down in front of on Tuesdays and Wednesdays just before noon.
The couch was wide enough for two or three people to sit comfortably; I preferred to tether myself to one the armrests for optimum distance should a potential neighbor arrive.
Oh, the rush I felt upon entering that building (comparable in terms of thrill to heading to the airport to leave the place) and suddenly, that TV springing into view. Would that no one would be watching!—or, at least, if they left before 11:45 a.m., at which point I would spring into action, commandeering the couch and changing the channel to Fox Sports World, which had perhaps already been rebranded as the Fox Soccer Channel. Either way, it held the UEFA Champions League television rights stateside.
This was one of the only places I felt at home during a frightening, frustrating freshman year of college. I had no idea how to adapt to my surroundings; which of course says something about your fitness as a man, but then again, I’d had no idea how to adapt to high school, either. I spent the final forty-five days of the second semester in a fugue. I went to class, went to the gym, went back to my room. It was investing spiritually in a football team (the European type, you boob) that saved me.
I was what I’d always been—a disaffected kid with vague designs upon becoming a writer who, like some strange plant, just needed a bit of water (let’s call it attention) from time to time. Otherwise, I just wanted to be alone. In high school, there was enough room to do that. I found a balance much more quickly.
I remember eating alone in a quiet alcove just outside the main building, the afternoon after school let out for Thanksgiving. A teacher passing by saw me in my solitary state and, frowning with obvious worry, asked what I was doing by myself. It was the first time I remarked that this behavior might be perceived as strange.
Back to college, where the hint of good soccer was something to look forward to. Sundays were my favorite day for it. Crosby was my place of worship. It was a different energy entirely from the hum and thrum of weekday lunchtime; mostly quiet, often just me and the TV, every now and then someone passing through.
The center didn’t open until 10 or 11 a.m. on weekends, so I missed the early games, but during the early afternoon, that Fox channel broadcast the Premier League review show, or a replay of the top game that day.
Here was a chance to watch Arsenal, my favorite English soccer club.
My favorite Arsenal games that year came on a Sunday and a weekday. They were both losses; they both heralded the end of something in the middle of spring. But then, the English league season always ends in spring. When Arsenal lost to Manchester United at Old Trafford in May, their dreams of a Premier League title, which had looked so promising just a few months previously, were finished.
A few weeks before that, they’d headed to Anfield for the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals against Liverpool. It was one of the greatest games I’ve watched; a cut and thrust of all-out attacking skill that ended in a 4–2 loss. Until a final goal sealed the defeat, Arsenal were a goal away from advancing to the semifinals. Liverpool ended up getting through 5–3 on aggregate. Again, Arsenal came up just short—but not before making it seem to all the world they’d snatch a victory.
Those games were fitting examples of what made me fall in love with Arsenal in the first place. A philosophy that emphasized—to the point of obsession—playing the beautiful game in a beautiful way. It made perfect sense to me; I couldn’t understand why other teams didn’t try to play in a similar fashion. Then again, I didn’t really want them to. It made Arsenal unique, something about their pursuit of perfection (ah, those announcers who’d lament their obsessions with “walking the ball into the back of the net”) which in turn made the experience of watching them more memorable and made me love them all the more forcefully.
Funny what becomes important to you when you’re a young man. Particularly what happens when you are a lonely young man. What you turn to for comfort ends up shaping you. (Duh.)
Why Arsenal? Why then? During the loneliest time of my life, Arsenal was a way to block out the pain I had such a hard time describing. It was a world away from wherever I was supposed to be. It was a way to immerse myself in a kind of dream that their French manager made so wonderful.
I found it fitting that I became an ardent supporter after their greatest period as a club had ended. Even now, during this interminable lockdown, when YouTube videos became another type of lifeline, my favorite moments to go back to were at the turn of the tide—a league cup final in ‘07, and the second leg of the semifinal before it.
An emphasis on youth, and a Czech wonder named Rosický. In that league cup semifinal against hated rivals Tottenham, Tomas Rosický smashes a shot at the edge of the penalty area. The shot is blocked, but the ball falls again to Rosický, who calmly adjusts and slides a pass to a teammate who neatly scores a goal.
Here is where the narrative is best expressed in a passage from Christopher Lasch’s book Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, about how the obsession in modern sport over results has diminished the spectacle. The shift is understandable, from a financial point of view. Sport at the highest level has become such a big business—in the Premier League, millions of pounds sterling are at stake when it comes to a side’s final league standing—that a kind of realism is needed by any team’s approach.
You could almost forgive Arsène Wenger for the path he took Arsenal upon after doing the unthinkable and going unbeaten in the ‘03–04 league season (26 wins, 12 draws, zero losses). That was his ultimate goal—finish a season unbeaten in the toughest league in the world.
Arsenal would move into a new stadium ahead of the ‘06–07 season, which would require Wenger to economize in his squad-building to help defray the exorbitant costs associated with a 60,000-seat wonder. Ever one to trust in youth, now Wenger could pursue his dream of crafting the greatest footballing spectacle the world had ever known, effectively from the ground up.
It was a flawed dream, like all dreams, but I loved it all the more for that.
The 2007–08 Arsenal side was still in transition to the youth brigade—some holdovers remained from the Golden Era—but they were still magnificent to behold. My favorite player was a mazy Belorussian winger named Alexander Hleb. In that May match against Manchester United, he was simply unstoppable.
Barcelona of that same era were the greater spectacle, but they had Messi. And it was so perfect that Arsenal faced them in the 2011 Champions League Round of 16 stage. It was two teams obsessed with playing great football clashing on a couple of unforgettable evenings. I watched the first leg of the tie in a bar in Spokane, Wash., the afternoon after my birthday. That evening I’d be heading to the house of the girl I was kind of seeing, and it wouldn’t be good. It was one of those forced attachments that at the time you never realize you have the power to refuse.
But that afternoon I enjoyed a French Dip and a beer, and watched the greatest match I’d ever seen. It was punctuated by an Arsenal winning goal to take the match at 2–1. One-touch passing, building and building, til’ the crescendo was capped with a sublime bit of forward play and a cutback pass for a winner (from the guy pictured probing his nose) curled into the far-right corner of goal.
I was watching on a tiny screen in the bar—the game wasn’t important enough to be shown on the big screens (I could write another story about how hard it was to be a soccer fan before American television companies realized there was a market for it), but I loved that perhaps the most. I was the only one in that bar who knew what had happened. That made it mean something more.
As would happen that season, and in every one it seemed, Arsenal came up short. But then, it appeared they were building. No time was more perfect than the transfer deadline day, 2013, when Wenger shelled out over forty million pounds for Mesut Özil, one of the most Arsenal players not playing for Arsenal up to that point.
Here was the perfect marriage of Wenger’s philosophy to the speed and pace and fury of the modern game. Özil was a revelation at the 2010 World Cup, when he spearheaded a revolutionary German ability to hit teams on the counterattack. Impeccable technique, wonderful vision.
He became my favorite player in football. A reason to tune in. Someone who made Arsenal Arsenal. Then the years continued to go by, the criticism mounted, and finally Wenger was gone. The two coaches who’ve taken the helm since have seemed intent to make their mark upon the club by ostracizing Özil, who was widely rebuked for his languid manner, perceived (wrongly, I’ve always felt) as demonstrating a lack of effort.
Now, Özil can’t get a game, and Arsenal are well on their way to becoming just the latest in a lengthy line of highly efficient, tactically excellent, and totally boring top teams in Europe. Modern football can be so maddeningly mechanical. Now Arsenal will simply be one of, rather a pinnacle standing out from the rest.
Wenger’s got an autobiography out now, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. Yet. He’s remained quiet since leaving Arsenal, only ever mentioning his lifelong support for the club. But I wonder if there’s a pain at how quickly the club was willing to move on from the philosophy he’d so painstakingly built.
But maybe there’s a solace to be had in the notion that no one can recreate, or even continue, the culture he’d created. I remember, though. It was a kind of home, even for a fan thousands of miles away.
At this point, there’s no point in switching my team allegiance. I’m not even sure if it’s allowed, though my sporting sense is a bit dull from lack of use. Like so many things, lockdowns, and the way they’ve forced teams around the world into going through with seasons without the backing of rabid fans in stadiums, have ruined the spectacle for me.
Once it’s back, if it’s ever back at full steam, then, I just don’t know. I’ll probably do what I had been doing, which is tuning in halfheartedly when I learn of a team that is dedicated to playing the Arsenal way. A couple seasons ago, it was the Dutch side Ajax during a barnstorming run to the Champions League semifinals. Now, there’s a bit of the madcap to Leeds United, recently promoted to the Premier League. In fact, they play Arsenal tomorrow. I’m at the point where I’m going into that match a kind of neutral. Who’d have ever thought?
It all comes down in the end to the dirty little secret about sport. It’s really quite silly. But it reminds you of your youth; or perhaps more appropriately, like Clay Travis put it on Megyn Kelly’s podcast, it’s a kind of dessert for adults; a nice break, a sweet treat from the otherwise tedious nature of life.
What Arsenal was can never be taken from my mind. It’s a part of youth I will keep unstained in memory until I die. It’s another mazy winger, Samir Nasri, on a freezing early winter evening in 2010, working a bit of magic for two goals against Fulham. Taking on defenders, nearly falling over in his prolonged individual foray, then slamming home a goal before hitting the turf. I watched the highlights of that match in the school library. Ensconced in my cubicle, I was silently cheering.