Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The hapless lot of a fan

I'm not entirely sure how one conveys the experience of being an Arsenal fan if you’re not a follower of the English Premier League, or soccer in general. To compare the experience to that of being a Chicago Cubs fan is too extreme; Arsenal’s had nothing like 110 years of futility. There’s a similarity to it, though, the sense that no matter how well things might be going at a given time, the Gunners are going to find a way to screw things up. For the last decade or so, Arsenal has been the dictionary definition of “good enough,” a team which has gone a dozen seasons without winning the championship* but always manages to finish in the league’s top four, which qualifies them for the lucrative Champions League.

*Virtually no one expects them to prevent this from becoming season number 13.

It’s not that Arsenal lacks good players, or the money to buy more. It’s that their players often fail to rise to the level required for a championship side, and the team’s management seems intent on bargain shopping, passing up the chance to acquire top talent not because they can’t afford it – like every other team in the Premier League, they have plenty of money thanks to the League’s new television contract – but because they can’t justify to themselves that the cost is worth it. They’re like the old lady who’s lived in squalor for as long as anyone can remember, only when she dies it’s discovered she had two million dollars stuffed in her mattress, and another million or so in bonds hidden in a cookie jar. They may be quite right in judging that Paul Pogba, for example, isn’t worth anything like $116 million, but as long as their competitors are willing to pay that amount, then Pogba’s objective value is meaningless; it’s his subjective worth, that of being a player who can bring the title to Manchester United, that is the only thing that matters.

Last year was perhaps a defining stage in Arsenal fandom, at least from this fan’s point of view. For the first time in years Arsenal was actually favored to finish in first, and even the team’s followers seemed ready to put all doubts aside, particularly since the League’s traditional powerhouses – Manchester United, Manchester City, and Chelsea – were all struggling. If ever there was an opportunity, this was it.

And yet, we all know how that turned out – 5,000:1 shot Leicester City pulled off the upset of all time and won the title; Arsenal finished second, its highest finish in years. But even when Arsenal threatened, shortly after the first of the year, it was difficult to cheer them on; Leicester had already captured the hearts of soccer fans worldwide with their Cinderella run, and it seemed somehow more compelling, more important, to root for the Foxes than to waste the energy on an Arsenal title bid that would likely end in failure anyway. The fact that Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Leicester on February 14* was actually somewhat disappointing seemed to confirm the Arsenal fan experience – or lack thereof.

*Leicester’s third and final loss of the season, which explains why they won the title; Arsenal, by contrast, lost seven. At three points per victory, the four extra defeats amounts to 12 lost points. For a team that finished 10 points behind in the final standings, that makes all the difference.

Arsenal’s majority owner is the American Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Los Angeles Rams. This article, although it pertains to the Rams and doesn’t once mention Arsenal, goes a long way toward explaining how a once-powerful side could wind up mired in mediocrity for so long, and how hard it is to root for a side owned by, to be blunt about it, a creep. These two articles, on how long-time manager Arsene Wegner has failed to adapt to the times (so much so that his name has become a noun in the Urban Dictionary for being unwilling to spend money), shows how why he’s become the perfect Kroenke manager, just as Arsenal has become the perfect Kroenke team. When “good enough” means making the Champions League every season and turning a profit, rather than spending the additional money required to win the League Championship, when a soccer team evolves from a fan’s passion to a sober businessman’s profit-and-loss statement, then it becomes time to assess what it means to be an Arsenal fan.

It doesn’t mean selling the jersey or burning the scarf, it doesn’t mean casting aside years of support, even though that support has been destined from the outset to end in disappointment. It does, however, call for a break, a hiatus – a sabbatical, if you will – in that fandom. If that means rooting for Leicester City to make lightning strike twice or seeking out another Cinderella team’s bandwagon to jump on, if it means finding another team with an attractive style and dynamic manager (Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp),  even if it means identifying the most hated team – Manchester United, in other words – and pulling for whoever can stop them from the title (Manchester City, in all likelihood), so be it.

Eventually, Arsenal supporters, who already pay the highest ticket prices in Europe, will find that the only effective weapon they have is their wallet, and they will make their displeasure known. Eventually, Stan Kroenke will find Arsenal’s resale value to have peaked, and will unload his shares before their value can sink, probably to some Asian or Middle East potentate willing to spend whatever’s needed to regain past glories. Eventually (likely after this season), Arsene Wenger will step down, leaving an illustrious legacy nonetheless tarnished by the last decade-plus, and a new manager looking to create his own legacy.

When that happens, the Arsenal fan will find that the red-and-white colors on the jersey and scarf have not faded for having been in the closet for a few seasons. And then it will be time to break them out and let them show once again; after all, the colors we currently see on the pitch week after week have faded enough as it is. By then, it will be nice to have something fresh to look forward to.

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