Image via amazon.co.uk
Image via amazon.co.uk
Those few of you who have tried to read some of my existential bawling into cyberspace hereabouts will have cottoned on to the fact that I am an Arsenal fan. Those fewer of you who have endured said bawls to the foot of the page will have noticed that I come from Ireland. Now, Arsenal are from London, and London is not in Ireland, even if much of Ireland is in London. Per the theory that supporting a team other than the one nearest you is an act of footballing treason, my shunning of the earthy charms of Ballanahanaha Irregulars in favour of the photoshopped gloss of the Premier League makes me less than a true fan. But the beauty of soccer is that it's a truly international game. Its passions cross borders and sneer contemptuously at large bodies of water. Football allows people of diverse backgrounds and circumstances to come together in universal brotherslashsisterhood. Is it not a wonderful thing that I can encounter a stranger on the street and, based on no more evidence than a shiny piece of Manchester United replica shirt sticking out from beneath his jumper, greet him with a hearty "Oi! Tosspot!"?
Were I to have said "I am an Arsenal fan" and appended to said declaration the customary "... for my sins!", I would be a liar. I am an Arsenal fan because of my great uncle Barney, and about his sins we were not encouraged to enquire. In any case, it was he who sensed my nascent love for the game and indoctrinated me in the ways of the Gooner. He had over his long years of devotion acquired for himself a hard-won array of prejudices and biases, and was determined not to let me escape my childhood without my taking them on. For example, he loathed Cardiff City, suspecting them of intentionally greasing Dan Lewis' jersey before the 1927 FA Cup final. He made me watch newsreel stills from the 1932 Cup final and ululate fearsome denunciations of Newcastle in unison with him. He'd slag off Luton Town "just because". And so on.
Some of the specifics didn't take (he had a habit of uttering apropos of nothing, "It's not Coventry the Germans should've bombed, it's bloody Walsall!", which always seemed a little harsh). But the principle remained. Football—much like life, that great metaphor for football—is chaotic and meaningless, and you need to make sense of it somehow. It seemed that dividing the game into good guys (Arsenal) and bad guys (other teams) was as apt a way of doing so as any other.
So I made my way into the wilderness. I didn't have to wait long before my course was set for life. The 1990/1 season was, all told, on the spiffing side of splendid for our boys. They won the league title back from Liverpool, almost achieved a double, and participated in a 21-man brawl with Manchester United (for which they were deducted two league points to United's one, which sounds like a victory to me). But the season was punctuated by three hideous traumas. First, Arsenal lost 6-2 to United at Highbury in the League Cup. Second, their unbeaten league run was ended at 23 games by Chelsea. Third, Spurs and Paul bloody Gascoigne knocked them out of the FA Cup in the semi-final round. These were the only three defeats suffered by Arsenal all season, but the effect was lasting. My emerging Arsenalhood had generally been vindicated, of course, as I smugly reasoned to myself at the time (I was a very precocious two-year-old). But here came United, Chelsea and Spurs to rudely disabuse me of the notion that I was a chosen one, as if it weren't true. I felt like Achilles must have done when Thetis sat him down and said, "Son, remember when I told you about your total invincibility? Well, we need to talk ..."
My antipathy was thus set in stone, and it served as a quick and easy reference point: I was Arsenal because I was not them. But there was a problem: there have been times since that turbulent year in which the unholy trinity of teams have been (I have heard it said) quite enjoyable to watch. Very enjoyable, in fact. And quite a lot of times. Now, I've read Galeano: "when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it," all that stuff. And I was aware of the concept propagated by certain Classical brethren of "liberated fandom": the idea that team allegiance can only get in the way of a true appreciation of a sport. Was I doing these teams an injustice? Should I drop my guard? If I tried to see past those hateful shirts, would a new world of beauty be opened up to me?
Well, I did try. I tried to appreciate United, but the longevity of "Giggsy" Giggs and "Scholesy" Scholes just seemed to be taking the piss. I tried to appreciate Chelsea, but when a Florent Malouda cut-back would be met by Frank Lampard after one of his customary 40-yard waddles, I would wince. I tried to appreciate Tottenham, but that Gareth Bale animation would only start to resemble energetic guano, and the phrase "Arsenal may be a shit Barcelona, but Spurs can only ever be a somewhat above-average Spurs" would hurtle instinctively screenward. It was impossible to watch any of these sides without fizzing into a toxic puddle of weapons-grade hatred. And I never dared watch a game between any two of them, lest I get cordoned off forever by men in those beekeeper/astronaut suit things.
But a few Sundays ago, I (as I believe one does) stumbled upon the FA Cup semi-final between Spurs and Chelsea. I wasn't expecting it, as it kicked off at the unusual time of 6 on a Sunday evening. But before I could say, "Won't someone think of the Sabbatarians?", I was watching. I was watching calmly. It was almost soothing. And then strange things started happening. Things that would once have seemed outrageous and disturbing were instead pleasant, even delightful. Bale's runs and Juan Mata's passes were to glory in. Lampard's free kick was special. William Gallas' defending was deeply, deeply human. And then there was Didier Drogba's goal: what normally would have been like a punch to the ribs instead near sent my heart bursting through my chest, like a parasitic alien made of pure love.
As the final whistle sounded, I was left dazed. It took me some minutes to come around to what had just happened: my hatred for each team had been in perfect balance and had been cancelled out. What remained was football, pure and simple, just as Pelé surely intended the day he invented it. It was a revelation. I now saw what I had to do. I had to cultivate a contempt for each and every team in football in order to reveal the true beauty of the beautiful game. Through ruthless and total partisanship, I would have my liberation. It would be like old Zen Buddhism himself had been reincarnated as a football fan.