1. WHAT KIND OF MAN ARE YOU?
Somewhere, in an English classroom:
—“Can I ask sir a question?”
—“Who is sir?”
—“You, Mr Rémy.”
—“Address me like I’m in the room. Don’t import Afrikaans rules of politeness into English.”
—“Okay. Mr Rémy, can I ask you a question?”
—“You’re already doing that.”
—“Can I ask another question?”
—“You’re doing that to.”
—“Okay, err, fine. What football team do you support, sir?”
—“I don’t support any team.”
—“But you have to support a team.”
—“I don’t even really like watching football.”
—“What kind of man are you?”
2. A BOY HAS NO TEAM
My relationship with Arsenal Football Club—for it is that, a relationship, with romance, nuance, ecstasies, disappointments, settling, distance, and disconnect—began in high school. Many things began in high school for me. It is where my passion for reading condensed into writing. I started playing basketball. There were girls. Of course, there was football.
I was in the eighth grade, a private school kid freshly arrived from a small convent school where listening to Eminem was considered an act of rebellion. I had never listened to rap before. In my naïveté I considered Smash Mouth’s “All-Star” to be rap. I did not know about Biggie and Pac, about the East-West Coast rap war which cost them their lives. I did not know that sides had to be chosen. When Tupac was shot in 1996, I was in the second grade, struggling to learn English, wondering why the past tense of put was not putted. When Biggie Smalls passed on a year later, I had enough English behind me to understand the Disney cartoons my parents bought for me and my siblings on VHS. In 2002, when I arrived at my new high school, a posh place with smart, blue blazers, where the smartest children in the whole country were rumoured to school, all the young boys naturally gravitated towards each other. The first things they shared were names, the primary schools they came from, whether they had older siblings in the school (a valuable social currency), and the football team they supported.
—“Rémy—Convent—my sister is in grade 11 now.”
—“What team do you support?”
—“I don’t support any team.”
Blank stares all around.
The way the other boys’ eyes glazed over let me know the situation needed correcting.
Football was not new to me, though. My father was a football player. A good one I am told. Late into his life he still has calf muscles that speak of an athletic youth. My mother said she used to go and watch him play for his neighbourhood team in Kigali, in Rwanda. The fast and wizardly number 11—that was him. Back when I was entering high school he enjoyed watching Arsenal play. He would watch their matches on television alone—none of his three sons were interested in football. Even early on, my brothers and I were anomalies. We did not play or watch football. We spent our weekends lost in books or inventing games for ourselves. My father was only slightly disappointed we never showed any football prowess. Whenever my father watched football he would watch it alone. Occasionally, my mother would keep him company. The 1998 World Cup, the one where the Zinedine Zidane mythology would be born blithely passed us by. We were vaguely aware of who Ronaldo was. Pélé and Maradona were known for general knowledge purposes.
But that night, after my first day of school, I came home determined to choose a football team. Naturally, I went with with what I knew: Arsenal.
It was a good choice.
3. “VICTORY GROWS THROUGH HARMONY”
Back then, in 2002, Arsenal were an enviable powerhouse in the world of football. With the Frenchman Arsene Wenger at the helm as the club’s manager, the team was filled with player panache: David Seaman, the reliable English goalkeeper; Laurent, the tough-tackling Cameroonian right back; Ashley Cole, the blitz-fast English left back; Sol Campbell, the solid English centre-half; Edu and Gilberto, the Brazilian engines who ran the midfield; the twin flashes of style and fury who ran the wings ragged, Freddie Ljungberg, the punk hair sporting Swede, and Robert Pires, the debonair Frenchman; Kanu, the lanky, mercurial Nigerian striker; and, Sylvain Wiltord, the quick-footed French striker.
But nothing could come close to the Arsenal’s attacking trinity: the silky, elusive spirit of the midfield, Patrick Vieira, the Frenchman with the long-legged strides and deceptive turn of speed—the team’s captain; the god of Arsenal’s ascendancy, Dennis Bergkamp, the Dutchman with a deadeye in front of goal and a pathological ability for making a clinical pass; and, of course, Our Lord and Saviour through whom all things were possible, the incomparably prolific Thierry Henry, another Frenchman.
Such was Arsenal in its empire days, decorated in glory, decadent in victory.
At the time, I did not know all of this when I chose Arsenal for my allegiance. I just wanted a football team so I would not be ostracised. It had happened once in primary school when I was still the foreign kid—He Who Could Not Speak English And Therefore Could Not Be Played With. In those first few months of primary school when my English stuttered I had no friends. The playground was harsh in its segregation. The pretty girls bunched together. The boys with lunchboxes filled with delicious sandwiches and chocolates formed a merry band. Kids with television talked about what they had watched the previous night. The skinny, the poor, the smelly, the snot eaters—even the moffies—all of them had friends. Not me.
Maybe that is why I put my being into learning English. Maybe that is why I became so slick with my words. I was the antithesis of that popular rhyme come fourth grade. Sticks and stones could break your bones but my words would screw with your psyche forever. Because of this I was never bullied. When I dissed someone they stayed dissed forever.
—“Your momma’s so fat even the priest won’t give her Holy Communion because she needs to go on a diet!
—“Your family’s so poor the Sisters are starting a separate collection for them on Sunday.”
—“You’re so ugly it takes five minutes for your reflection to work up the courage to show itself in the mirror.”
Yeah, I was that kid. There is a particular species of cruelty prized by children, especially young boys, that is magnetic. I had friends galore. Later on, when I grew older, this particular kind of cruelty would be tempered ever-so-slightly here and there, sharpened, masquerading as wit. While the late ‘90s—the golden age of the diss—would give way to the ‘00s and pranks, the ‘10s would see the rise of the roast. Banter and trolling would become viable vocations. Throughout all of these time periods there was a way of speaking, especially amongst boys and men, that almost involved calling into question another person’s masculinity.
What kind of boy are you? What kind of man are you? The sharper the barb, the better.
In the eighth grade, I did not have all of the intellectual or social faculties I now have. All I knew was that I was damned if I was going to spend a day without a tribe. I cast my lot with Arsenal Football Club.
It took a while to figure out the rules of the game but eventually I knew what a red card was. I learned that a penalty was something the referee never awarded to my team even though the dirty defender had pulled Henry down in the box. The nebulous offside rule was simplified: “If it’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy, it’s offside.”
After I got the hang of it, learned who was who, and figured out the drama behind particular games, few teams rewarded spectatorship of the game like Arsenal did. The way Campbell headed a ball down to Laurent who passed it to Gilberto who passed it to Ashley Cole who slid it to Viera who melted past a defender before slipping it to Pires who ghosted past a sliding tackle to pass it to Bergkamp who cheekily toed it to Henry who nonchalantly poked it past the flailing keeper—Arsenal’s playing style was a smooth stream of soccer consciousness, uninterrupted by unnecessary punctuation like a misplaced pass or an intercepted through ball. It flowed from back to front and side to side effortlessly, the cut and thrust at the end of a play sent the Highbury faithful into ecstasy and feverish goal lust.
At school, freshly aligned with Arsenal, I made friends and enemies accordingly. I jeered at Liverpool supporters. I vomited whenever someone mentioned Manchester United. Chelsea was a floundering mess and Manchester City were the losers’ team on the other side of Manchester. Premier League weekends were a social and emotional institution. If a team lost a game over the weekend, its supporters prepared to have trying Monday mornings. They were heckled relentlessly, teased into silence and indignation. The attacks were general for the most part and, therefore, harmless, but sometimes they could become horribly offensive.
—“Liverpool’s defence is as porous as your sister’s legs.”
—“Your father was playing goalkeeper for Chelsea last night. Every time he saw balls coming his way, he bent over to let them pass.”
—“Arsenal are in a eunuch position to not win shit anything season.”
Always, and without fail, effort, or second thought, it was easy to reach for a rape metaphor, or something alluding to emasculation in order to describe some team’s misfortune.
—“Your team was raped, bra!”
—“After a while, I guess Chelsea stopped putting up a fight and learned to love it.”
—“We’re going to White Hart Lane and having our ways with them, bro. Ask for permission? Why?”
It was the culture. It was seemingly harmless. If football was just a game then surely the ensuing trash talk was similarly just as harmless.
But was it? I do not think so. We were not commenting on a team’s loss, something which is a normal part of any sport or athletic endeavour. We were deliberately using a team’s defeat to spit bile at each other. We were following the ways of men as we had seen them, perhaps, in our own homes, as we had heard our brothers, fathers, cousins, and friends talk about other people’s teams. It seemed normal back then, to harass someone about their team losing as soon as they stepped onto the school grounds, to harass them all the way through Maths class, to harass them in recess, and, finally, harass them as they were heading home. We never stopped to think about what we were saying at the time. All that mattered was that our team had won, someone else’s had lost. Sucks to be them. Hahaha. Get it?
In the Invincible Era, a passage of time in which Arsenal went a whole season undefeated in the Premier League, Arsenal fans were unassailable. It was impossible to say a bad word about Arsenal that season. My team was the best. Everyone else’s was unfortunately not. I was a plague on the playground, the very worst. For a teenager with no football bone in his body, I sure talked like I had just signed a contract to join Wenger’s army. For anyone else but Arsenal fans I was the antichrist. Why? Just because, I guess.
The high that came with being an Arsenal fan was indescribable. A win every weekend. Thrashing other people’s teams. Drawing right at the moment when it seemed as though Arsenal would be humbled. Never tasting tangible or lasting defeat. It was an invincible season for my friends and I, but an unbearable one for everyone else at school. Arsenal was invincible, and so was I.
But it was all vicarious. I did not play football; I played basketball. I was not paid to support Arsenal, but I spent money on the club’s memorabilia like my dollar would be the dime that kept the grass green under Henry’s feet. No one at Arsenal knew my name but I knew many of the player’s birthdays. I knew all the transfer rumours, the injury news, the songs, and the history. Victoria concordia crescit—victory grows through harmony—the Arsenal slogan became my own.
I was a Gunner through and through, and because I was a Gunner I had friends.
It really was the best of times.
(24 October 2004)
On 24 October 2004, Arsenal played Manchester United, the team’s bitterest rival, in the Premier League. In a terrible game of stop-start-foul-stop football, Manchester United brought Arsenal’s unbeaten run in the league to an end. Arsenal had gone 49 games without defeat, a record which still stands today.
49–the number holds a special place in the hearts of Arsenal fans, past and present. The previous year would, unbeknown to the team’s fans, be the last time Arsenal would win the Premier League trophy. Chelsea would soon begin its meteoric rise to the top of the table by snatching the title away from their London neighbours. Arsenal would finish second that year, the highest league finish for twelve years. Later, in 2005, Arsenal would narrowly inch past Manchester United in the FA Cup to win a trophy which would be a singular achievement for almost eight long years. The future was not known to Arsenal fans in 2004, but the winds were a-blowin’ and the times, o, they were a-changin.’ It was the last time the Holy Trinity would wield their power together, like the Last Alliance of Men and Elves on the slopes of Mount Doom. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, that 49th game was the crack in the dam. Arsenal fans still turn dark and sour when they talk about it. There have been more embarrassing and sourer defeats since, but that 50th game against Manchester United is a trauma, a war wound which is rarely talked about by veteran fans.
24 October 2004—a day that will forever live in infamy.
Many football teams cannot trace the exact moment they started to decline. Even in long relationships or marriages one cannot say for certain what it is that brought the magic to an end, what made the love run dry. Was it the snoring? The forgetful dumping of clothes on the bedroom floor? The work? The fatigue? No one can say. As a former fan, though, I can safely say the slow rot of mediocrity which infected Arsenal, exposing me to my first conscious confrontation of toxic masculinity in football fandom, came at the foot of that much-loved English and Manchester United striker, that young wonder boy who would go on to be a bane for Arsenal defences for the next ten years, a social trigger in need of extended therapeutic redress as much as loud noises or assault, that “Shrek-looking, boy-bashing troll” who both Arsenal and United fans call—for totally different reasons—Wayne Fucking Rooney.
5. THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT
There is a saying: blood is thicker than water. Family always comes first—patient mother, quarrelsome sister, absent father, bullying brother, and thieving cousin. Family trumps all. I had read this in books. I had seen it in films such as The Godfather. Even at the end of the Star Wars trilogy Anakin Skywalker sheds his Darth Vader mantle to stop Emperor Palpatine from killing his son, Luke. Family is stronger than the Dark Side of the Force. My father was fond of emphasising the importance of family whenever my brothers and I were at odds about something, when the mood in the family was tense. The wisdom behind it was communal: family as a means of survival, family as a reliable foundation for a society, family as stable and constant regardless of shifting social relationships.
Another variant of the adage exists: the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.
This saying states that blood shed in battle—or a joint undertaking, or promise made in times of struggle—is more powerful than genetics. Trauma trumps family. Loss is more powerful than chromosomal connection. Blood spilled on the battlefield bonds soldiers together, akin to a new birth, turning them into blood brothers. Battle brotherhood is one of the most powerful psychological and emotional experiences. It knits entire armies together. It turns conscripts into volunteers and sergeants into surrogate fathers. The brotherhood of blood is powerful and, oftentimes, inescapable. This might give a regiment an advantage on the battlefield, but in civilian life, mine-ridden with social nuance, it can be crippling because everything in every day life is not—and cannot—be a fight.
Athletes, especially athletes in team sports, also know the power of the covenant proverb. But blood comes in many forms—on the sports field sweat is a suitable substitute. It achieves the same thing as blood. All for one, and one for all. The sweat expended while toiling towards the same goal cuts through barriers, making you more than teammates. It also bequeaths a particular status upon competing athletes. It stops opposing competitors from demonising each other and bestows upon them dignity, they too demand respect. That is why athletes shake hands when the final whistle blows, when the race is over, or when the ten-count cannot be beaten. The handshake acknowledges a certain kind of brotherhood.
The blood of the covenant gave us Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, 300, and many other epic films in which brotherhood is born on the battlefield. That blood will give us another Bad Boys installment.
—“We ride together. We die together. Bad Boys for life!”
Football fans are bound by the blood of the covenant.
It is understood, without question, that supporting a team is striking a covenant between the team—regardless of its changing management, player roster, and fortunes. This covenant should supersede and outlast everything. Supporting one football team for life is such a strongly held belief amongst boys and men that deviation from it is seen as either a betrayal or some shortcoming of masculinity. A man must have a loyalty. A man must have a nation. The blood of the covenant and Arsenal is thicker than the water of the womb.
I did not know of the second variant when Wayne Fucking Rooney froze Arsenal’s invincible run forever at 49 games. I was incensed. I was heartbroken. I was despondent. For days on end I dreamt of alternative endings to that game in which Arsenal went on to win fifty games and gallantly make it to fifty-five, losing to some minor team by a fluke goal. Anything but the diving, sure-footed boot of Wayne Fucking Rooney.
But Wayne Fucking Rooney it was. He was the death of Patroclus, the catalyst which brought Achilles out of spiteful slumber. He was Gavrilo Princip meeting the Archduke of Austro-Hungary. His was the shot felt around the world.
Within a year of Wayne Fucking Rooney scoring that goal, Arsenal were in uncontrollable free-fall. An ageing team, injuries, legends retiring, stars being poached by more lucrative clubs, new powers rising within the English game, and, generally, the fact that no empire lasts forever doomed Arsenal to its waning days. The barbarians were at the gate.
There is no end to the articles which have been written about Arsenal’s demise. One minute they were a world-beating team, capable of thrashing Inter Milan by five goals to one away from home and the next it was a second-rate power. Like Galadriel after the temptation of the Ring. Soon, the Grey Havens would start shipping away the elves. Vieira soon departed for Juventus and while Ljungberg, Campbell, Pires, and Henry would remain at Arsenal, making an enchanted and spirited attempt to capture the elusive Champions League trophy in 2006, their power was greatly diminished. The age of gods was over. Only in men could the Arsenal faithful place their faith.
“Men? Men are weak. The Blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten. It is because of Men the Ring survives. I was there, Gandalf. I was there three thousand years ago. I was there the day the strength of Men failed.”
—Elrond, The Fellowship of the Ring.
Elrond was right. Men are weak. Men give up. They tire. They pull hamstrings. Men miss sitters. Men are hard people to believe in when you have seen gods.
Such was my fate when I woke up and saw Arsenal trophy-less, devoid of the sheen and shine that made the club what it was in its former years. Even Henry, the last of the Invincibles, the last true titan, had departed for Barcelona Football Club in Spain, a move which signalled to Arsenal fans that their team had little hope of hanging onto its present and future stars. There were other galaxies not too far away—stars do not like shining by themselves, they have to twinkle together.
I did my share of hoping for better days, of cheering for the troops, of backing “our” boys, of chanting and taunting and jeering and being loyal. I was a Gunner, nay, I was a Gooner and you are a Gooner until the day you die.
But men really are poor foundations for faith. And if my own Roman Catholic upbringing with its spotty church attendance was anything to go by my faith was destined to falter.
6. O, ARSENAL (REPRISE)
(8 April 2008)
In the second leg of a hotly contested Champions League match between Liverpool and Arsenal, Steven Fucking Gerard (Gooners have a plethora of fuckers they hate) the talismanic Liverpool captain dumped Arsenal out of Europe’s most lucrative club competition. It was an end-to-end game with goals being scored on both ends. Steven Fucking Gerrard’s penalty came 45 seconds after what Arsenal fans assumed was their game-winning goal: an impossible slaloming run from Theo Walcott gave Emmanuel Adebayor the chance to slide home at Anfield. By then, Arsenal had become a third-rate power. The trophy cupboard was empty and the Pandora’s box of nightmares had its lid wide open. Didier Fucking Drogba. Frank Fucking Lampard. Fernando Fucking Torres. Nicolas Fucking Anelka. Cristiano Fucking Ronaldo. There was no end to the number of Arsenal scourges in those dark days.
At the end of that cataclysmic Liverpool-Arsenal game I stopped supporting Arsenal.
Since Wayne Fucking Rooney scored That Fucking Goal I had been wrestling with disaffection with Arsenal. That I remained loyal to them so long after their demise is shocking to me today. I try not to place too much faith in things I cannot control. As much as possible, I try to take the path of least disappointment. That I allowed players like Justin Hoyte, Johan Djourou, Pascal Cygan, Jeremy Aliadiere, Philippe Senderos, and Denilson to yo-yo my emotions on a weekly basis is something I cannot understand.
By then Arsenal fan talk had incorporated another toxic blind spot into post-game commentary: the battered wife.
—“We’re in an abusive relationship with Arsenal.”
—“When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s bad. You just never know with Arsenal. But it is what it is. We’re married to this game.”
—“Arsenal fans never know which Arsenal is going to come home.”
By then I was in a university filled with diversity. It was no longer essential to be affiliated with a soccer team in order to make friends. But old habits die hard. In my residence at the time the United guys roomed together on the same floors, the Arsenal boys had theirs, and the Chelsea gold diggers were gloating together in somewhere else. There were Madrid fans too. Of course, everyone was a Barcelona fan. While conversations about toxic masculinity were not as prevalent as they were today I, at least, thanks to all the multitudes of Arsenal scourges, had become so unhappy and so locked in the never-ending cycle of watching emotionally-sapping football. The only positive thing to come out of that time period was me lying in my bed, wondering why Arsenal kept doing this to me, promising me to change, showing signs of brilliance, and then slipping into self-destruction and taking along my pride and my right to banter. I asked myself the thing people ask abused spouses all the time.
“Why don’t you just leave?”
The more I thought about, the simpler it seemed. I thought about jumping on tables in my residence’s television room after Adebayor scored, momentarily shedding the Adebum moniker we had bestowed upon him. Arsenal were going to progress in the Champions League. And then…and then…turning around from hugging my fellow Arsenal fans to find Steven Fucking Gerard standing over a penalty.
I was done.
7. THE SHIP THAT THESEUS BUILT
(9 April 2008)
A common philosophical conundrum asks this: if Theseus’s ship, in a harbour, has all of its timbers replaced, one by one over time, until none of the old timbers remain, is it a new ship or is it the same ship?
For me, as far as Arsenal was concerned, it was a new ship. None of the players I had grown up with had remained. The old guard was gone. Arsenal was in a new phase, figuring out what it was about, what its style of play was, and adjusting its ambitions accordingly. New stadium, new kits, new board, new owners, new players—only Wenger remained, an old captain striding aboard a new ship. But Arsenal and I were sailing in different directions.
The next day, after That Game At Anfield, at breakfast, I told my friends I was no longer supporting Arsenal. I laid out the principles of Theseus’s ship. At the end of a spirited explanation in which my bowl of oats went cold I limply said, “So, yeah, I’m no longer supporting Arsenal.”
I was met with blank stares all around and then:
—“You’re a Gunner until you die.”
Football fans are not concerned with complex philosophical problems. All they want to know is that their team will have the best players on the market. That on Sunday they will win a game so they can have something to say on Monday morning at the office, on the playground, or in the WhatsApp group. Mostly, they want to know that they are not alone. They want to know that they are in this—whatever this might be—together. Barcelona’s resplendence, Liverpool’s stagnation, Manchester United’s dominance, Real Madrid’s glory. Arsenal’s death spiral. All fans just want to know that they are in it, come what may, together. So no matter how much repair Theseus’s ship undergoes, for them it is always the same ship. And because it is always the same ship, regardless of age or rot or repair, the loyalty remains the same. The old blood calls again and again.
For any professional football team it is good that fans think that the ship remains the same. That keeps the bottom line healthy and stops the business venture from sinking. As such, football clubs’ marketing activities try to drum up new loyalty and maintain old ties. You’ll never walk alone. Mes que un club. Victory grows through harmony. Everything is designed to keep fans financially true to the blood of the covenant through recessions, marriages, wars, wins, losses, draws, highs, and lows. It would be financially inimical for a team if its fan base flocked this way and that, from Spain to England, from the Bundesliga to the Seria A, something which is prevented by fans policing themselves.
—“You can’t stop supporting the team, Rémy.”
—“A man must have a team.”
Many of my friends could not believe I could stop supporting Arsenal. Such a thing was unheard of, a crime against manhood. Arsenal was who we were. We were stalwart believers that Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas would be our Second Troy. We were adamant the Emirates Stadium would be decorated with the spoils of English and European campaigns in no time at all. We heckled the United fans and the Scousers on match days. The one Tottenham fan in the residence used to watch North London derbies under heavy security. If a result went our way, which it sporadically did, we were buoyed and hopeful for the future. If it did not, which was more likely than not, we floundered in despondency. There was even talk of getting matching Arsenal tattoos at some point. Arsenal was blood in, blood out kind of business.
—“Nah, guys, I’m out. I’m done with Arsenal.”
—“What kind of man are you?”
8. THE JUDAS INTERLUDE
I knew it was possible to leave a football club. I had seen the blueprint laid down a few years ago in my own family. My father, the football player, decided to leave the green, green grass of Highbury for Liver-Fucking-Pool.
9. NO COUNTRY FOR ODD MEN
Upon reflection, I should not have been surprised by my father’s defection. You see, my father had never actually said he supported Arsenal. I had never heard the covenant words: “I am an Arsenal fan.” All he had ever said was that he liked the way Arsenal played. Through the years I had watched football with him he had never cheered a goal or bemoaned a red card. In the haze of my own euphoria at a Bergkamp goal or an unjust Gilberto Silva red card I assumed he felt and reacted the same way. So his sudden enjoyment of Liverpool’s playing style—circa the Merseysiders heading to the Champions League and winning it in historic underdog style against AC Milan—was a painful blow for a budding teenage son.
Were fathers and sons not supposed to support the same team?
Of the many flashpoints my father and I would have in my teenage years, a good many of them would start in the television room, with Arsenal either losing to Liverpool, or Liverpool beating Manchester United (Fernando Fucking Torres, the Old Trafford nightmare!), or Arsenal failing to sign a star player, or Liverpool being in another Champions League final, or, or, or…It always had something to do with football.
That my father could and would change teams was something I should have been able to see him doing. He was unconventional, unlike most fathers I knew. He never went to bars. He did not hang out for extended periods of time with his male friends. He was never the loudest in a group of men. He preferred my mother’s company and his own solitude. I had never seen him drunk. He raised his sons and daughters equally. That he was, perhaps, in his own way, battling toxic masculinity at the time never occurred to me. (There was no “toxic masculinity” back then—my mother called it “the nonsense that man get up to.”) To me growing up at the time, my father was an odd guy. Not bad, strict, for sure, but just plain odd. Now, inevitably thrust into my thirties, with routines in danger of becoming a trap, with world football bigger and more ubiquitous than ever before, being the odd guy who does not watch football is more anomalous than ever. Even in the classroom. Almost 17 years removed from the social setting which sent me down the Arsenal path, very little has changed. There is no country for odd men.
To be clear, supporting a football club is not toxic. But supporting a football club in the way that men do is toxic. The othering of everyone who does not support the same team is unsavoury. The social training of women to accept that their man’s first love will be their football team is pretty lame. The banter is socially accepted trolling. The post-game rants on Youtube which champion shoutivism are teaching a new generation of boys that they can make money by vilifying players, engaging in vulgar chest-thumping by insulting opposing fans, and reaching for the ever-handy rape and assault metaphors. This is not to say that criticism when a favoured team does not perform as expected is bad. But there is a level of criticism so devoid of intellectual capacity that needs to be discouraged. Unfortunately, though, the viler the criticism, the more online attention it generates, the more views it garners, the more Youtube pays.
That supporting a football team remains a key part of identity formation still surprises me. Maybe I should not be. Men have always been good at being loyal to the things other men do. But because I have spent a long time outside football circles, only talking about it when a big game was on the horizon, or occasionally being forced to talk about it amongst some friends, I had forgotten just how powerful it was to masculinity.
Which is why when an eighth grade student in my English class asked me what kind of man I was because I did not support any team, the most that I could say was:
—“I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
10. BACK TO THE FUTURE
Here is a non-exhaustive list of things that happen to you when you stop supporting a football team:
Your friends do not believe you—“Nobody stops supporting a football team!”
Your friends ask you why you are not going to be in your university residence’s television room an hour before the Arsenal game starts so you can help to outnumber and outvote the rugby fans or the other football team supporters when there are scheduling conflicts. Your friends will not believe you when you tell them that you are done with Arsenal.
Your friends will knock on your door later that evening asking where you were. “Dude, the United guys kicked us out. What the fuck?” They will not believe you when you tell them that you do not watch Arsenal games anymore.
You will delete your Arsenal desktop wallpapers. All 300 of them. You will fold the Invincibles’ squad poster reverently. You will not throw it away.
You will spend ninety minutes in your room fighting withdrawal whenever Arsenal plays, especially when it is big game. The world might seem as though it is going to end if you do not watch just this one game.
The world will not end.
In the morning, at the breakfast table, you will notice just how much guys talk about football.
Lunch will have more football talk. My god.
Supper. Football again. And women.
You will change tables the next day and that will be akin to changing your friends. The next Sunday you will be asked what kind of man you are.
In a few weeks’ time your friends will stop harassing you about joining them in the television room. They will stop talking to you because now you apparently have nothing in common.
The first time Arsenal play Manchester United you will take a train to the beach, to be as far away from anything football-related as possible. Arsenal will lose. When you return to your residence to find the dining room seething with resentment and triumph from opposing camps you will feel vindicated.
Without football fixtures to plan your weekend around you will have so much time on your hands. It will be out with the old, in with the you. You are going to discover the city and, in time, yourself.
Finally, you will take the sunset walks you said you would take back when the early evening hours were dominated by football.
When you are introduced to someone for the first time they will ask you what kind of man you are. Who does not support a football team? You do not.
You will stop following football news. Arsenal’s win-loss ratio will become a joke. You will not know because you have not tuned into their progress in a long, long time.
You will try the vegetarian thing for a while and a guy will ask you what kind of man you are. You also do not support a football team. What kind of black guy are you?
You will watch arthouse films from Hungary.
Twitter will become a thing along with live tweeting football matches. Banter is a way of life. As a former Arsenal fan you will have access to the best roasts. Someone will @ you. “You don’t even support a team. What kind of man are you?”
Later, in the working world, lunch tables with men will fall silent when you say you do not really watch football—the World Cup and any major cup competition, sure, but nothing else. Someone will call you gay. His girlfriend will look at you funny.
You will meet a woman. She will say she supports United. You will say you do not really watch football. She will ask what kind of man you are.
The transfer market will open and close and Arsenal will acquire subpar players in exchange for their best. You will remain unconcerned.
At home, you will watch football with your father, indifferent, but peaceful.
Before you know it, years will have passed and you will have watched a handful of Arsenal games when you were bored. Later, you will watch cup competitions only at the semi-final stage because football really takes up too much time.
You do not drink, can go days without meat, learned how to dance salsa, and would like to pursue a writing career. You do not watch football. The woman you tell all of this to, the one you do not know you are bound to marry, will look at you strangely and ask what kind of man you are. But she will say it with a twinkle in her eye, like you are the rarest of gems, not an anomaly. She will ask you if you are serious, for real, for real. You will say yes. She will say, “Thank fucking God!”