Part the First: Invincible
When I first became aware of Arsenal and the Premier League as more than just some strange faraway league of awesome English things that one was lucky to catch highlights of at 1 AM on Friday nights on Fox Sports Net in my hometown, it was a revelation. My neighbor, who had grown up in London, Hong Kong, and India, saw me watching the Premier League on television one Saturday morning, and told me that I'd better be an Arsenal supporter like he was.
I took little convincing.
My teams, at that point, were perennial losers; the Vikings lost four Super Bowls, all before I was born. The catastrophe that was the 1999 NFC Championship game crushed me for a week. The Twins had won two world series and then become the laughingstock of baseball, at one point almost doomed to contraction. Not moving to another city, no; simply winking out of existence, because baseball thought itself unsustainably large. The Wild were brand new and struggling to find their feet, even if they had legendary coach Jacques Lemaire at the helm. The Timberwolves were guaranteed to lose in the first round of the playoffs while Kevin Garnett tried to carry a bunch of nobodies past the Spurs or Lakers.
My knowledge of European club football at this time was basically this: Manchester United were the most popular/best team going, Liverpool were once very good, Eric Idle grew up supporting Wolverhampton, Elton John once owned Watford, and George Weah was supposed to be good, still (right?). I kept confusing Ajax and Rangers for reasons probably related to the fantasy/sci-fi lobe in my brain. I knew that Newcastle were sponsored by a beer of the same name. That was pretty much it. I loved Zidane because he had crushed Brazil, a team I still don't like.
When I saw Arsenal, it all fell into place. I hadn't asked someone "what is the best team I could follow right now", but I was really, really into what I was watching. A team that could contend with anyone on earth? Check. A team that had recently (1998) won a championship? Check. A team with serious players at every position? Check. Arsenal had no real weaknesses; they were my anti-Vikings, my anti-Twins. I lapped them up like a soldier who fell into the Nile after being lost in the desert for days.
"So Manchester United are bad?" I asked. "Yes," replied my friend. "But not as bad as Tottenham". This was great; I had my Green Bay Packers, I had my Dallas Cowboys, my Yankees, my Lakers. I had the opposition. I slipped into the red and white with the lightning-strike fervor of the convert. There was no going back; Arsenal and I were going to steamroll everyone in our way.
For five years, that was basically the outcome, too. Arsenal and Manchester United fought every season for the top; Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane were heated French haine and icy, blank Irish pre-fury. Ryan Giggs and Thierry Henry ran circles around everybody. Dennis Bergkamp and David Beckham zazzed the proceedings, and I had one team to turn to every week as a favorite. It felt great. Arsenal were potent, I was young, it was downright sexy. Two titles, an undefeated domestic year, and three FA Cups later, I was feeling pretty darned high on the hog.
Part the Second: Honorable
From 2005-2010, I had steamrollery feelings at the start of every year. This was going to be the year, things will be great, Arsenal are a year older, we have the best midfielder in England, we have a tremendous striker when healthy, this is IT. Every year, though, Arsenal become a demonstrazione: an illustration of how fine the margins of victory and defeat are in top-level sport. An ankle here, a mishap there, and outsiders were branding the Gunners as failures. Season after season, though, there was no reason to think that Arsenal were any less of a squad than that which had run rampant in the first part of the decade. Sure, Chelsea, and then Manchester City, had fallen into Scrooge McDuck vaults of gold coins and bullion, but every year, the first-choice XI for Arsenal were capable of anything. Flatten away, you boys.
This summer, well, this summer has been wild. In terms of transfers in, it's felt a lot like the summers previous; one or two pretty well-known names from the continent, some youngsters from the home nations, high hopes for all. Transfers out have been enormous; Samir Nasri doesn't feel like a big loss given his recent form, but he's a good player, and young (but holy crap: 25 million? WHAM, BAM, THANK YOU MADAMOISELLE). Gael Clichy was a good, sometimes great, left back, who was intelligent and classy. Emmanuel Eboue was flawed but personable, Arsenal's equivalent of the guy in action movies making wisecracks up until his lack of combat acumen means the giant monster eats him first. And quickly.
Cesc Fabregas leaving crushed me. I honestly wasn't expecting it until close to the very end, and it really took the wind out of my sails for a day or two. The fact that Arsenal have money to spend and need to strengthen worries me, to be sure, but I still want nobody but Arsène Wenger as manager. His comments about certainly spending money earlier this summer mean that he has hoisted himself by his own petard to some degree, and his lack of signings to this point in the wake of losing Fabregas is worrying.
Part the Third: Defiance
As weird as this summer has been for supporters, though, for Wenger, it's probably been the most stressful of his entire life. A player that had basically been a son to him, the central figure of his third great team, had to leave. Forces beyond his control--and a control freak, he is--made it impossible for him to do anything. The move hurt the club, hurt him, and hurt supporters, and it came as a hammer blow to Arsenal's position as a buying club, potentially. Nobody on earth has worked harder for Arsenal than Wenger has, ever. It's unlikely that anyone will match the man-hours he's put in for this club. A manager famous for watching Ligue 2 matches in his hotel room rather than drinking after matches, Wenger is a footballing obsessive.
Watching him stand in the Islington rain this weekend, arms folded, hair limp, necktie silk ruined, while Kenny Dalglish stood thirty feet away gesturing madly in Scottish at nobody in particular, I felt something that I have not felt towards a sports figure in quite some time. It's hard to describe it. It wasn't pity, really, and it wasn't exactly anger towards any one thing. It was more general anger, anger towards fate, towards circumstance. I am the youngest of three, so I've never had a little sister or brother to defend from the blows of the world, but it was something like that. The Premier League, Luis Suarez, City, Barcelona, they were laughing at Arsenal. Ten-man Arsenal, exhausted Arsenal, Thomas Vermaelen coming up inches short to stop the cross for Liverpool's second Arsenal, Emmanuel Frimpong trying his hardest in a situation he wasn't prepared for Arsenal, Carl Jenkinson not backing down Arsenal, Gervinho not taking any crap off Barton Arsenal...something was emerging in the grey fog that had been July and August.
The world was laughing, punching the Gunners in the face, and rather than defaulting to my customary despair and eating the whole pint of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream, I got mad.
I don't give two tugs that Arsenal's best striker is made of cellophane and that the club has no left back. I don't give two tugs that our holding midfielders are loose cannons and often out of position. I don't give two tugs that the rest of the world see Arsenal as easy targets (Udinese learned the hard way). I don't give two tugs that I no longer turn on the television with the expectation to win. Many supporters see it as terrible that the club is in a position where expecting to win is no longer the default position; they see it is evidence that Arsenal are now a "small club" (presumably one like Inter Milan, rather than one like, oh, Torquay United...small club? Really? In London? With a 60,000-seat stadium?) with "small club mentality".
I don't care about any of that. I know the team has problems, I know the squad is as thin as it's been since 1995, beyond doubt. I know, but I don't care. My bond to this team is different now; a similar shape, but tempered by anger and desire. Trophies were an expectation before, perhaps, but now trophies are two fingers and a farting noise to the world. Winning a trophy because it is expected and winning one against the odds; there is a big difference. If we don't get one, it doesn't matter, because this team has made me remember the angry defiance of failure. The cool objective-yet-engaged distance I had with Arsenal for five years has burned away in the fires of my fury. No longer do I project the fascistic single-minded love of the new fan, but no longer do I wear my allegiance like a nice overcoat and expect people to blow kisses at me, either.
My new emotions scare me a bit, because I fear irrational support from a political and social standpoint, but this is not irrational; this is the most rational I've ever been. Things will not be rosy all the time; things will not be all style. We're down in the mud and the blood again, but we're like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of Predator; we're just hiding in the mud and blood waiting for the enemy to get close enough to surprise him. And we just might do it, boy. We just might.