Offside, 8 November
On the current bout of Arse-fixation.
Britannia no longer rules the waves but we are second to none when it comes to losing our sense of perspective. The Premier League is the best league in the world, we tell ourselves. Arsenal, double winners in England, are touted as European champions-in-waiting.
Call me curmudgeonly, downright contrarian even, but before their recent wobble, I steadfastly refused to join in the chorus of drooling praise lavished on the Gunners. Every time I heard commentators purring, as if sexually aroused, over Arsenal’s slick passing and movement, I reached for my sick bag. It wasn’t because of any underlying south London parochialism. I work in Gooner territory. Some of my good friends have north London postcodes. Highbury is, I concede, A Nice Place. But still I can’t bring myself to enjoy watching Arsenal win.
And when Arsenal lost four games on the spin, oh how I laughed. But (with the exception of Spurs fans, whose hatred of Gooners is hardwired into their genetic make-up) I seemed to be the only one cheering as the goalkeeper formerly known as Safe Hands repeatedly picked the ball from the net? I took particular delight in Arsenal’s misfortune because it rudely punctured Arsene Wenger’s increasingly irritating hubris.
As early as September, Wenger was already suggesting that Arsenal could go the whole season undefeated. ‘It will be difficult for us to go through unbeaten but we can do it’, said Wenger, ‘I just have great belief in this squad’. When Arsenal thumped Leeds United 4-1 at Elland Road, Wenger modestly compared his side to the great Dutch national team of the 1970s. ‘We are playing really great football, total football’, he boasted. ‘The danger comes from everywhere, with the players showing they can all change positions all over the team.’
Arsenal, he opined, were good enough to win the Champions League. ‘I am positive and I think we will do it’, he said. ‘Do you think I go into any competition thinking I cannot win it? No chance.’ In fact, only Real Madrid now stood in the way of the world domination. ‘Real Madrid are number one and we are number two in the world’, declared the Arsenal coach with no hint of irony.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with aiming for the stars. But considering Arsenal’s hitherto undistinguished record in the Champions League, Wenger’s arrogance is somewhat premature. When you’ve proved yourselves to be the best; when you’ve won the Premier League again and again; when you’ve consistently reached the latter stages of the Champions League; when you’ve lifted the European Cup, and then repeated the feat; then, and only then, are you entitled to big yourselves up. As BBC pundit Alan Hansen put it: ‘We learned the lesson at Liverpool: wait until the trophy is on the table before you tell everyone what a good side you are.’
The problem with the current bout of Arsenal-loving – or should that be Arse-fixation? – is that it does not represent a departure from the unhealthy and typically British affection for losers. I have frequently criticised the fashionable antipathy to Manchester United – the Anyone But United tendency – on the grounds that hating United for their excellence is symptomatic of a society suffering from aspiration deficit disorder.
There are many perfectly good reasons to hate United. The cloying veneration of the Busby Babes following the Munich air crash; Clive Tyldesley’s sycophantic match commentaries; the fact that Mick Hucknell is a celebrity fan – these are all laudable reasons for detesting United. But hate them for winning everything for the last decade? Only losers do that.
Spanish journalist Guillem Balague hit the nail on the head when he said that ‘the hyping of Arsenal has been an indirect consequence of the dislike many feel for Manchester United – overstating the success of Wenger is to deride Ferguson’ (1). Arsenal are admired precisely because they are still seen as pretenders to United’s crown, a fact that Wenger himself acknowledges. ‘It’s natural to be disliked when you are at the top’, he says. ‘And I would love to become so good we are disliked.’
‘In Spain, the leading nation in European club football, Arsenal do not scare anybody’, says Balague. Maybe it’s the Rioja talking, but he does have a point. Arsenal are a good team, a very good team. Last season they were deservedly English champions (though United did gift them a head-start).
This season Arsenal have started to find their feet in Europe. But that’s all they’ve achieved. Manchester United dominated our domestic league for a decade but, as Balague points out, ‘[t]heir domination at home was never reproduced in the Champions League’.
When Arsenal can point to a trophy cabinet heaving with recently acquired silverware. When they are universally reviled for winning everything. Only then will you find me applauding them. Until then I’m supporting anyone but Arsenal.
(1) Arsenal fail the fear test, Observer, 6 October 2002
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