Some obnoxious nudging from my good friend B’more has forced me to acknowledge that my beloved Arsenal are now fifth in the league tables, while B’more’s boys Liverpool are managing to hold on to the top spot. It is insult added quite literally to injury after Fabregas was maimed and forced out of action by Liverpool’s Alonso in December. And while it was reassuring at least to see Arsenal’s win over Bolton on Saturday, that 2005 FA Cup trophy is getting smaller and smaller in the distance as we get further away from their last major title win, which was against Manchester United nearly four years ago.
Still, I have faith in the Gunners. It isn’t blind faith. I do believe they’re coming back to form. But it started me thinking about how we assign our loyalties - especially in sport - and why.
I remember when I started my love affair with Arsenal. It was 1997, I had just started university, and I had the temerity to join up with a women’s squad to play inter-faculty football. It was, after all, a time for new beginnings, new interests, and as it turned out, new ways to feel stupid and inadequate. Women’s football on the campus at that level was hilarious. Most of us knew nothing. And the few who did were right snots about it. We found a coach with a sense of humour, and started in earnest with early morning, late evening and weekend practice sessions.
Our first match was demoralizing. Picture twenty (the goal-keeps at least had the good sense to stay put) petrified but aggressive women all charging after one ball, getting to it, and then each having no idea how to deal with these other nineteen women before them. It was greater comedy than the theater department could ever have produced. I hate not being good at things. When I encounter things I am not good at, I promptly stop doing them. Of course, this is a ridiculous habit, since it means that unless you have some inherent genius in this area that rushes to the surface, you’d never learn anything or discover any latent talent. What kept me with the team was the determination of the women and my newfound interest in the game. This interest prompted me to start watching the league matches that year.
So I turned on the television one day and encountered a dejected Arsenal leaving the field after a 3-1 trouncing by Blackburn. It had been, I was told, the latest in a series of defeats that season. But I liked the look of them. I thought they moved magically as a team; I was drawn to watch Bergkamp, Vieira and Petit; and I decided at that point to root for the underdogs. I think I was the good luck charm. That year saw a legendary resurgence. An embattled Arsenal took the Premiership trophy and went on to their second league and FA Cup double. I went on playing football. When campus play ended, I joined a community team, developed a decent left foot, and settled into my position in the middle. And I became an Arsenal fan for life.