I was taking my usual brief, post-match “I hate myself” scroll through the wastelands of Twitter following Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion this last weekend when a particular tweet caught my eye. The tweet has since been deleted, so I can’t link to it, but it was a picture of an Asian couple at the match who were smiling, taking a picture of themselves with a selfie stick, and the tweet said something to the effect of 'this is what's wrong with modern arsenal and football fans'
This talking point, narrative, or whatever you want to call it, seems to crop up a few times a season throughout England, especially throughout the fan bases of the so-called “bigger clubs”. And each and every time it does, I’m left wondering what this unique set of critics seem to want with the club they so cherish that they’re driven to purposely divide and label themselves, as if there are informal tiers of fandom that need to be adhered to.
It’s no secret that the fans that attend Arsenal matches look and sound vastly different than they did prior to the creation of the Premier League in 1992. The formation of the new league stemmed from the fact that English soccer was at a crossroads back then, thanks in large part to a culture rife with hooliganism which saw its clubs banned from European competitions.
Teams also played in rundown stadia across the country, built mostly of crumbling wooden foundations that were directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of supporters, which meant that generally you had to want to go to a game - there was no such thing as a “casual fan” for the most part, because the match day experience wasn’t really all that great.
When the league decided to bet against itself by selling their matches to content providers, the first major soccer league in the world to do so, the plan struck gold. Literally. What was once a deal with a singular media entity – Sky – for a few hundred million pounds spread out over the first five years of the league’s existence has now exploded into an enterprise that will receive £3.2 billion in foreign TV money through 2019, that many media analysts are predicting will soar to as high as £40 billion from years 2019 through 2022.
NBC is in the middle of a £1 billion deal with the Premier League through 2022, and reports are everywhere that Amazon and Facebook will face off in a bidding war that will blow away the traditional competition for media rights to the league.
In China, the world’s most populated country, digital firm PPVT will start paying £180 million a year in 2019 for EPL TV rights, up from £13 million a year – a 1,284% increase in rights fees. All of this would not be possible had the league not been set up in a manner that kept their product contained to the United Kingdom.
As a result, Arsenal and other clubs within the league and country have fan bases across the world; we here at The Short Fuse are evidence of that fact. When Arsenal landed in Australia and China this past summer for their preseason tour they were greeted at the airports by thousands of fans wanting to get an up-close glimpse of the players and staff that they wake up for in the middle of the night to watch multiple times per week.
These fans, who are no different from the local fans who come from generations of Arsenal supporters, make the pilgrimage to London and Islington for every match, having become fans through the camera lens whose images are beamed across oceans and continents. They are not any less of a fan than the local, nor are they what’s wrong with modern football.
For better or worse, the toothpaste cannot be put back into the tube at this point. Arsenal is a global club, a global brand. This is what happens when your club was caught in the middle of a growth spike unlike anything ever witnessed in the sports world in England. Arsenal cannot go back to the days when tickets were affordable for everyone, when terraces were full of standing, local supporters, many with beer-stained shirts and pee-soaked pants. That is not the Arsenal of today, and it certainly won’t ever be the Arsenal of the future.
So to the local fans who take a picture of the tourist fans reveling in their joy at flying across the globe to go to their first-ever Arsenal match and use it as a weapon against them and the state of the club and league, I say to you: shut the fuck up. You are no more precious, or important, or better than any other fan. In fact, I would say to you that until you wake up at unnatural hours of the day in order to simply watch a match on TV for years on end, you are inferior as a fan in comparison to those who live abroad and whom you look down upon.
You have the closeness and familiarity of what the club is to your daily life, and for that you should be grateful. Because, as we’ve seen, there are tens of millions of fans – from Africa, to Asia, to America, and beyond who would absolutely trade spots with you in a heartbeat. These long-distance fans continue on, supporting the club, purchasing hundreds of dollars of apparel every year, and saving up earnings over multiple years to make a week-long, probably once-in-a-lifetime journey to London to see Arsenal play once, if lucky maybe twice. All because they share the same love of Arsenal that you do.
Hopefully next time, when local fans spot a couple with a selfie stick taking a photo of themselves at the place they’ve only known about through words, pictures, and the TV, maybe they’ll put their cell phone camera away, resist the urge to mock and ridicule these traveling fans for both who they are and what they’re not, and they will attempt to gain a little perspective on the journey that they, the club, and the league has embarked on these last 25 years.
If you do that, Mr. Local Fan, and you still cannot come to terms with it all, might I suggest you move your support and attention to one of the 32 clubs in London proper alone who play in leagues below the EFL Championship. There you can gain back a sense of what it means to truly be a local fan for a local club. You probably won’t find a tourist fan among the crowd, and you’ll feel safe to go back to the days of the standing local supporters, many who perhaps have beer-stained shirts, and perhaps pee-soaked pants.