The most exciting point in a football match comes when it dawns on you that neither team is in control of it. It might only happen for a brief minute or so, as possession quickly and repeatedly changes hands and expertly engineered systems temporarily become exploding clown cars. More extremely, it can result from a total defensive fuckupalooza, as in the recent game between Reading and Arsenal, that gang of scatterbrained jester's apprentices that has lodged itself in my heart like shrapnel from a very silly bomb. (Scientists' best estimates put the final score at 5-7, give or take.) Most deliciously of all, it comes when both teams hit the sweet spot of incompetence: just about bad enough that every attack on them is potentially fatal; just about good enough that each can exploit the other's dozing immune system.
Football's pretense is that anything can happen at any moment. It's true in theory, but in practice a tad too rarely for my liking. The bizarre, the sublime, the seemingly random: they occur just about often enough that the game can congratulate itself on its quintessential unpredictability. But what I'm really after is something more constant, a ceaseless hum of fear stalking each player which comes from total control of the play being forever just out of reach, bar the odd sainted moment. The spectator is a part-time sadist. The match isn't worth half a hoot if the players don't suffer just a wee bit. You want to be unnerved, to not know exactly where you are and to delight in your helplessness as much as the players dread theirs.
Except when my team is involved, that is. Sure, the Reading game was fun, but that was in the League Cup, and as President-for-Life Arsène Wenger says, the League Cup is not a proper trophy anyway, not like the opportunity to ship four in the San Siro. No, in proper Arsenal games, excitement is a curse. Truth is, I like 'em dull. I like them so dull that black holes can't escape them. But it's a peculiar kind of dullness I seek. My ideal Arsenal game is one they control utterly and obviously from the start, one in which they go, say, 6-0 up within five minutes, and stroll through the rest. It's one where the outcome is as certain as it can be this side of match-fixing. I'll take the nerve-obliterating euphoria when it comes, you understand, and wear it proudly. But mostly, I want the raw clay of the 0-0 scoreline to mould itself sharpish into something more favourable to Arsenal—by which I mean more favourable to me, natch. I want the heart to beat at a steady 72. I want seething waters to be soothed. It's not the vicious thrill of supremacy I seek, but peace of mind.
What a bloody stupid thing to seek in sport, which exists to tweak the nose of your peace of mind. Consider it cosmic retaliation for my sadism: the torment the spectator demands in the players rebounds back upon him. Lately, Arsenal have been doing more than their fair share of turning you upside down and shaking you till your nose bleeds. Days after Reading, they drew 3-3 with Fulham in the Premier League. I would have found it a joy were Arsenal not involved, what with both teams nervously exchanging goals like ambassadors bearing gifts. But they were, and I didn't. Such is life.
This is no whinge, by the way: there's little more pathetic—or funny, frankly—than fans of the gaseous giants grousing about their lot, as Chelsea fans have demonstrated in recent days. (Other pathetic/funny grousers available by request.) In fact, I and my daft little hang-ups have been spoiled rotten in the not-so-distant past. The easy Saturday afternoon demolitions of trembling foes was a semi-regular occurrence in Arsenal's good old days (ie. about five minutes ago). Plus, should it need saying, they did it in style. I caught a telly show last week on Thierry Henry's time at the club. Nostalgia for yesterday is a frightful thing, but it was hard to watch the footage from that epoch and not feel pained. Arsenal still see themselves, if mainly theoretically, as the most stylish team in the land. But they don't play like that anymore. The fact that no other team in England does either, nor ever did, does little to palliate the sore spot. Still, it's a point of pride to have had some meagre connection to it, a matter of vanity that my affliction once coincided with stylistic righteousness. My team played like the Apostles would have done if they'd had the good fortune to have Wenger for a messiah. There's been plenty for my fellow Gooners and I to gorge on.
But honestly? If they'd had the same success with none of the style, I don't think it would have mattered too much to me. In fact, under George Graham, whose tenure ended just a year and a half before Wenger's began, they did have some of that success with none of the style. At their best, Graham's Arsenal played with a glorious dourness. At their worst, mind you, they were just grim. But how quickly and thoroughly style can change shows how fragile and ephemeral it can be. There are Arsenal fans who have no notion of how things were before 1996, who think that prettiness is etched on the club's soul. But as far back as the 1930s, they were "Boring Arsenal". (Not coincidentally, they won five championships and two FA Cups in that decade.) As recently as 1994, the Cup Winners' Cup final victory was an example of beautiful ugliness if ever there was one. That said, so too, arguably, was the run through the knockout phase of the 2006 Champions League, which included a ten-hour spell with an aggregate score of 5-0 to Wenger's Arsenal.
I prefer the Wenger era, of course. It leaves more picturesque reminiscences, more telegenic season-in-review DVDs, a lasting astonishment at just what that team was capable of. Such long-range effects matter: better to have some beautiful memories to keep you warm in a chill wind. But it's impossible for this fool to escape the more primary emotions my team has prompted in me. Before the day's attaining halcyon status comes the relief that it didn't turn out worse. And when it does turn out worse, well, don't get me started.
I'm tempted at this point to quote Mrs. Doyle from Father Ted, from when a salesman was trying to convince the fanatical teamaker of the virtues of a machine that would do the job for her, that "takes the misery out of making tea," to which Mrs. Doyle replied, with a look of filthy contempt, "Maybe I like the misery." There's a tradition of football supporters who delight in bearing the turmoil their teams heap upon them (usually supporters of clubs who try their fans' patience far more than Arsenal do theirs, it must be said). Think the Stations of the Cross, or the Four Yorkshiremen. However, I don't think it's as masochistic as all that.
Watching sport, however you do it, is an exercise in optimism. God knows there's plenty to be cynical about when it comes to sport. But if you were totally cynical, you wouldn't watch it at all. You're always hoping for something that's going to move you, however great or small the chance of that happening is. You can't watch without being hopeful.
But the slag of hope is anxiety. (That's "slag" as in "n. 1 stony waste matter separated from metals during the smelting of ore," you understand.) It's an unavoidable part of the sporting experience, whatever the nature of your involvement. You can only manage it. You could pretend it's not there. You could engage in sport half-heartedly, stepping outside when things get too much. You could probably watch it ironically, Lord help us. You could, as many soccer fans in particular do, choose to regard your fandom hedonistically, as a quest for grade A beauty.
But a hedonist is just someone who thinks that pleasure is good and that he's the first fucker in the world to have discovered the fact. Some of us have no choice but to live with the anxiety. For me, whose sporting rambles over the years have shaped my tastes in sometimes unusual ways, the anxiety happens to have mostly been loaded onto my Arsenalistic side. If I want rapture, or even just entertainment, I can—and do—get it elsewhere in sport. And sport is entertainment, of course—it's just that it's more than that too. It's too untamed to fit snugly in that category; you can't always choose what it gives to you, or you to it. You can tell yourself that you watch sport for the drama or the beauty or the violence, that you follow a particular team to be part of a community or to be connected to a glorious history or because of a mutant gene. And it could all be true. But I suspect it's more common than people own to that there's another basic drive at work, maybe even ruling all others for some. When Real Madrid beat Barcelona at the Nou Camp last season, for example, I bet there were madridistas whose very first instinctive reaction, before the roaring and the gloating, was Phew. I guess Chelsea fans must feel it sometimes, but we'll leave that question to the anthropologists. The anxiety of sport, and its management, are as life-affirming as any of the other things we get from it. But maybe you need to disguise it to bear it.