Thursday, 24 February 2011

Is it time for me to come out of the closet?

Let me say at once that I have little or no interest in football.

It’s so unimaginative. Players rush up and down the pitch without anything that resembles a strategy or sustained effort to build a position. Rugby is so much more interesting a game. Teams occupy ground, move forward through phase after phase of play, and then suddenly break free or find themselves losing the ball and facing a counter-attack. The score, too, tends to build. A lead, a big lead, a reduced lead, sometimes a reversal of the lead. In football, you can go ninety minutes and it’s still 1-0. The big yawn, basically.

My aversion also owes a great deal to my dislike of the players, with their space-programme salaries and appalling behaviour both on and off the pitch. When it comes to moral values, they seem lower in the scale of things than even politicians and journalists, and not a lot above bankers.

If my views of football are qualified at all, it’s by the fact that I’m fond of Alsace in Eastern France. My wife comes from the deep south of the province and we lived for the best part of ten years in or near Strasbourg, in the north. Great place.

One of the today’s outstanding football managers is Arsène Wenger. He was brought up in a village not far from Strasbourg, where he lived over his parents’ bar. Football got into his blood from the telly constantly on in the corner and the conversation of the regulars. His long career in football eventually took him to the London team Arsenal, where he's still manager today.

Arsène Wenger: a legend in London with his roots in Alsace
Back in the early 70s, I spent some time in South Yorkshire, at a time when English football was dominated by Leeds, based only a few miles from where I was living. Their great and despised rivals were Arsenal, perceived as dull, uninspiring and ruthless. Leeds were at least as ruthless, but in so far as football can provide inspiration at all, they were far from uninspiring. Some of the contempt for Arsenal rubbed off on me: it was the team that everyone but its fans loved to hate.

Then I saw, and read, Fever Pitch, the Nick Hornby tale of a fanatical Arsenal supporter. I couldn’t help feeling a sneaking sympathy for the protagonist (that’s what good writing can do). Then Arsène took over the club and I began to feel a shamefaced wish to see them do well.

They have, of course, done fine for ages. In the last few years, though, they’ve tended to come in the top three or four of competitions, but never quite top. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

Last week they pulled off a bit of a coup. Having trailed for eighty minutes of a Champions League match to one of the most overpriced teams in Europe, the current title holders Barcelona, Arsenal hit back in the last ten minutes to win 2-1.

I couldn’t help myself. ‘Good for you,’ I thought, ‘and I hope you can hold onto that slender lead for the second leg away in Barcelona.’

The next evening, as I reached the platform for my train home, I saw a man in a jacket with an Arsenal badge on it.

‘Good badge to be wearing,’ I told him, ‘after last night.’

The Gunners: badge of shame or badge of honour?
He smiled at me and began to talk about the fortunes of his team. It was a brief conversation, as my train arrived a couple of minutes later, but it was cordial and warm. It amazed me. A complete stranger had lightened up the dull business of travelling home, had brought me a spark of human contact, had revealed himself as a person in a crowd. And all thanks to the Gunners.

‘Know thyself’ it said over the entrance to the oracle at Delphi. I’m beginning to have to face up to an ugly truth about myself, or a truth that maybe isn’t that ugly but about which I still feel a prick of shame.

Am I perhaps turning into a bit of an Arsenal fan?

I think of that seventeen year old I once was, in the mining village in Yorkshire, swept along by the tide of enthusiasm for Leeds, when no-one could be lower in human existence than an Arsenal supporter. Lower than bankers even, if that's believable.

Oh Lord. Am I going to have to come out as one of them?

Still, perhaps it’s worth it for a stranger’s smile and two minutes of his time, on a grim and unappealing railway platform in the rush hour.


Mark Reynolds said...

I know nothing of football at all, but became an Arsenal fan just this December, when we happened to be in a Tube stop near their stadium just after a game had finished. The line wasn't working, the crowd of people in red and white was huge. There was one drunken wannabe hooligan trying to pick fights with pretty much anyone who made eye contact with him - and a small crowd of Arsenal fans chased him out of the station. No physical violence - just mockery. It was a beautiful thing to see.

David Beeson said...

They do seem to be an amiable lot, don't they? It isn't the first time I've got into a chat with an Arsenal fan in a train and they seem to be short on aggression and long on cordiality.

Amazing. Not the image I had of the club at all.

Awoogamuffin said...

hmm... but the game is still boring though. Still, I suppose it's nice to have an answer to that question so many men think is appropriate to ask when they first meet you: "Which team do you support?"

David Beeson said...

You're right - though before I answer 'Arsenal' I think I might have to drop my voice and chech who's behind me in case they're listening...