My Love Affair With the Arsenal

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens ‘Share Your Football Experiences’ Contest; to participate, please read the details here.

It was 11:30 at night when my hired car dropped me off at 25 Millionaya, St. Petersburg, Russia. The paint on the building in which I was to live was peeling severely, though in some spots you couldn’t notice it due to all the graffiti. Dark and drab clothed natives were stumbling about the streets with their bottles of vodka and staring at the foreigner standing at the front door of this building, trying desperately to figure out how to work this unfamiliar lock. Then, the sound of a bottle shattering. The scream of a feral cat. What have I gotten myself into?

My fears were calmed the next morning when the sun came out through the clouds and glistened on snow that had freshly fallen overnight. The faces on the street that seemed so hard and calloused suddenly appeared warm and unexpectedly cordial. I guess such is the experience of a young man who’s traveling abroad for the first time in a very distant land. As a 20 year old American, living through two months of a frigid Russian winter on my own, I found myself prone to staying indoors and flipping on the television. Such was the case for me in 2003, the year that I rediscovered football in the most unlikely of circumstances.

I knew a little bit of Russian, but not enough to even remotely understand what was happening on the average TV show. The only thing I could bear to watch was that which needed no commentary, the Beautiful Game. Of course at the time, I wouldn’t have even known what that moniker referred to. My only experience with soccer in the States was the two years of kiddie ball I played when I was aged 5 and 6. ‘Played’ is term used loosely because at that age soccer is a sport where parents release their hyperactive offspring onto the field like a swarm of bees who will stick to the ball like it was honey. Setting my inexperience aside, I figured that it was as good a time as any to try to learn what the game was really about.

When I arrived in October, the 2003-04 Champions League group stages were already under way. The group which garnered the most coverage in that part of the world was Group B, which matched up Arsenal, Dynamo Kiev, Inter Milan and Lokomotiv Moscow. Looking back at that line-up, most would automatically bet that the teams from North London and the San Siro would be the ones to advance. But what would I know? I hadn’t heard of any of them before. As the games progressed, qualification was anything but a foregone conclusion. By the time I began to follow the tournament, Arsenal had only taken one point from its first three games and Inter looked to be cruising with 6 points.

Arsenal intrigued me. Why I was attracted to the team at the bottom of the group table, I couldn’t say. Maybe it was their powerfully striking red team strip, or the fact that they were from England, the country I most associated with the game. Remember, I knew nothing else about them or the game. The fact that they were on the road to their unbeaten Premier League title had no bearing on this admiration. All I know is that what followed justified my intuition about the team I love today.

The first game I watched was an unimpressive 1-0 victory for Arsenal at home against Dynamo. Henry’s flick was headed home by Ashley Cole to save Arsenal’s hopes of qualifying out of their group, bringing their point total to 4 after 4 games. At this point I was stuck at the point that most new American watchers of the game get held up. I reached the oversimplified, but common conclusion that soccer was a game of near misses. I had spent 90 minutes watching two teams grinding it out in the midfield working for possession and trying to establish an attack, with only one goal in the dying minutes to show for it. Fortunately, the second match would change my perspective.

Wrapped up in a blanket on the couch and nursing a Baltika (variety #3 of this Russian ale is quite good), I watched Arsenal square off with Inter at the San Siro. I started noticing the intricacies of the game, the deft touches, the difficulty in the successful trapping of a long ball, the skill and grace required to keep the ball at your feet while running full speed. I began to see the flow of the game, the shifting movements as players raced forward and others covered back. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was watching Wenger-ball.

It’s no wonder that the player who most embodied these observations was the magical Thierry Henry. In the 25th minute, the King of Highbury rounded on a loose ball at the edge of Inter’s area, driving it past a helpless Francesco Toldo into the bottom corner of the net. Thus, the floodgates of Arsenal’s offensive prowess opened, as the men in Red and White threaded passes finer than hand-made lace and struck the ball towards goal with the power of the cannons embroidered on their shirts. My new idol broke away and fired home into the same corner a second time later in the game as the Arsenal attack became relentless, scoring twice more in the final ten minutes of match. When the referee sounded his final whistle the scoreboard in Milan read, 5-1 to the visitors.

Arsenal had put themselves back into contention to qualify and it was in their hands if they could beat Lokomotiv Moscow back at Highbury. On the final day of the group stages and one of my last days in Russia, Henry & Co. sent the Russians home with a convincing 2-0 win and advanced to the knockout round. Inter Milan would not advance. I went home to America with a new respect for the game the rest of the world already adored.

I continued to follow soccer and Arsenal at home through the internet. It became a passion. I read all the histories and player biographies I could find. I dreamed about how awesome it would be to attend a match at Highbury and hear the songs ring out from the rafters. I bought my first kit on ebay, TH14 of course. I watched heartbroken as Juliano Belletti’s goal sank Arsenal’s Champions League run in 2006.

Fast forward to this past summer. I came to London for 6 months of law school courses, at least that’s what I told people who wouldn’t understand the real reason I came. I had purchased my tickets well in advance. The Red Army faithful had already said goodbye to Highbury the season before, but as I strode across the bridge leading to new 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium, I knew that something special was still in store. The over-sized Arsenal badge that adorned the side of the stadium filled me with pride. Passing through the turnstiles I could feel the energy brewing.

It was the inaugural Emirates Cup and Arsenal was paired up with none other than Inter Milan. I tried to keep my expectations low because I figured a summer friendly tournament surely won’t have the same atmosphere as a Premier League match. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Maybe it was the excitement of seeing the boys out on the field again after the hiatus, or maybe it was the chance to play another top European club again, but the place was alive. The red-robed fans made their new home echo with songs for the players and the manager.

Then it happened. Just after kick off, fans began to stand and cheer, and it slowly made its way to my ears . . . “5-1 at the San Siro!!! 5-1 at the San Siro!!!” A smile crept across my face as I remembered that cold night in Russia when I first fell in love with the team that I’ll follow to my dying days.

Written by Joe Groff

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens ‘Share Your Football Experiences’ Contest; to participate, please read the details here.

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