Category Archives: Victoria Concordia Crescit

Més que un club? A pox on that.

I used to feel an affinity for Barcelona, as if they and Arsenal were kindred clubs bonded by a shared commitment to a different approach to football, an approach defined by a belief in attractive, stylish football built from a foundation of development from within, nurturing young talent, and noble ideals. Our mottos espouse similar beliefs—their més que un club and our Victoria Concordia Crescit each proclaim something loftier than merely winning matches or hoisting trophies, as is each victory heralds some kind of milestone, not just for football, but for humanity itself. The risk of painting oneself in such colors, of course, is that it invites ridicule. And so it is ridicule that I offer.

I’ll admit to feeling no small amount of envy when I consider Barça. After all, they have played a style of football that we at Arsenal strive (and struggle) to emulate, and they succeed at it far more often than do we. We are Barça Juniors, so to speak, a pale imitation of how Barça play, not to mention how often they succeed. Before I got into this business of blogging, I bought into the myth that Barça were fundamentally different, above the fray somehow, knights in shining armor who fought valiantly against the darker forces embodied by Real Madrid. Real, of course, offered a convenient, caricatured counterpoint, a dastardly villain who would resort to the darkest of arts in pursuit of glory. Buying all manner of galácticos. Hiring Mourinho. And so on. Ironically, they rode into battle, los Blancos, as if they were the pure of heart. Meanwhile, for many years, it was Barça that emblazoned its kits not with a betting site but with UNICEF, announcing a clarion call to the heavens of its putative purity.

However, as we’ve plumbed the depths of Fàbregas’s possible return to Arsenal, I can’t help but feel that something has been lost, that this nobility emanating from the Camp Nou, is looking a bit thread-bare, a bit shabby. I don’t bear any ill will against the club for the many players who have left us to join them—Henry, Petit, Overmars, Hleb, Fàbregas, Sylvinho, Song—I can’t help but feel that the number of transfers, not to mention the quality of players involved, peels back the curtain on a more-sordid way of comporting oneself. Now, it’s a bridge too far to suggest that Barça are cut from the same cloth as their rivals Real Madrid, but the fit is a bit too close for comfort. They’re not quite stocking the squad with galácticos, but they sure are aggressive in the transfer-market all the same. For years now, they’ve racked up transfer-deficits in millions and millions of pounds, the most modest being 2012-13 when they went into the red by “only” £12m. Here’s a quick run-down of their transfer-dealings:

  • 2013-14: £37m deficit.
  • 2012-13: £28m deficit.
  • 2011-12: £11m deficit.
  • 2010-11: £23m deficit.
  • 2009-10: £78m deficit.
That may not be quite as eye-popping as the deficits at the Etihad, Bernabeu, Parc des Princes, or Stamford Bridge. Then again, only Barça professes any kind of deeper ideology beyond winning. If anything, the aforementioned four horseman of the apocalypse have the good taste to announce their amorality up-front rather than cloaking their venality behind a veneer of virtue. I realize that I walk a fine line now as we enter the silly season and lust after various players who might elevate Arsenal to the next echelon—on what footing will I stand if we again drop a cool £40m or more on a player?—but I wash my hands of Barça. They are not the club I believed them to be. Even the club’s commitment to development from within has been tainted with the announcement of FIFA sanctions because the club was “found to be in breach of art. 19 of the Regulations in the case of ten minor players and to have committed several other concurrent infringements in the context of other players, including under Annexe 2 of the Regulations. The Disciplinary Committee regarded the infringements as serious and decided to sanction the club with a transfer ban at both national and international level for two complete and consecutive transfer periods, together with a fine of [£310,000]”. In other words, they’re not even trying to pretend that they’re developing players from within.

I don’t regret the time I’ve spent respecting them. It won’t be the first time that I’ve learned someone or something I’ve respected wasn’t all I made them out to be. We’re all human, after all, and institutions are little more than a collection of those humans. Inevitably, we’re destined to fail, and to do so more often than we succeed. So it goes. The question then becomes, how do we portray those failures? Barça continues to whitewash, to cloak itself in this holier-than-thou mentality that offers as much substance as a gossamer négligée, one that leaves precious little to the imagination.

Here’s where the splitting of hairs, the cognitive dissonance, comes in. If our pursuit of Fàbregas is legitimate, are we (a) acting just as Barça act, or are we (b) rescuing the man from a rapacious club?

Does Arsenal deserve to win the FA Cup any more than Hull?

We’ve come down to it now, one last day before a match that feels like we’ve had to wait forever for. Whether you count it down as six days from the last match, three years since our last glimpse of a cup, or, of course, nine years since we last hoisted one, the waiting has been agonizing and angst-inducing. Will we slip up against a side lower on the table an in apparent disarray after we ourselves despatched the likes of Tottenham, Liverpool, and Everton to get here? Will it be a cakewalk as it was against Coventry? It could fall somewhere in the middle, similar to the semifinal against Wigan, which looked like it could slip away in regulation and again when it went to penalties. Could the unthinkable happen—could Hull rise up and snatch glory from us, cruelly denying us the relief we so urgently crave?

After all, it’s not as if merely waiting for something equals deserving or earning it. By that definition, Hull might stake a deeper claim to the cup, having not won much besides promotion since 1965 (League One champions). No, the length of one’s suffering doesn’t prove much of anything, Does depth? Can anyone really prove that Gooners want this more than Hull’s fans? That kind of emotion is immeasurable. The only standard by which we can be said to have a higher claim to the cup is when it comes to expectations. Put simply, everyone expects us to win except, perhaps, Michael Owen, Spuds, Robin van Persie, and perhaps a few embittered Gooners. We’re expected to win because we’re the bigger club, and that stands to reason: bigger clubs are supposed to beat smaller ones.

However, this is the cup. Miracles, as it’s been said, do happen. More to the point, expectations wreak havoc. Saddled with our glorious history and our most-recent barren history, we might play timidly or tightly, making costly errors out of fear of failure, ironically dooming ourselves to that failure in the process. Hull, freed any such presure, could play freely and blissfully, shedding their more-humble history and defying expectations. We’ve seen it happen, haven’t we? Yes. Yes, we have.

Part of the glory of the FA Cup, after all, comes from how it offers clubs just like Hull or Wigan or Sheffield United a chance to slay a giant like Arsenal. Whereas the Prem is very nearly the exclusive domain of the biggest clubs, clubs from outside the Prem do make it to the FA Cup final, occasionally, even winning it from time to time. So where does that leave us? Is it just and fitting for the minnows, er, Tigers to win? Are they the scrappy, idealistic underdogs and we the bloated, rapacious bullies? At one level, yes.

However, a large part of why I love this club is inspired by ideals as well. While realizing full-well that we are by no stretch a small club, we do carry ourselves somewhat differently from other big clubs, somewhat more nobly. Whereas Man City and Chelsea and Liverpool throw their money around enough to put drunken sailors to shame, we’ve refused. For years now, we’ve paid the price of not paying the prices as mercenary players come, only to go, blaming the club for lacking ambition. Many of them have gotten what they sought, either in lucre or silver or both, and I won’t complain (much). I like to think we’re cast from a different mold, something more enduring and classic. It may not glitter quite as brightly but it glows, however subtly. As I watched the making of the FA Cup (above), I was struck by the pain-staking, loving detail to every last little detail. A century after the first cup was made, they’re still doing it by hand, step by step by step. No short-cuts. No cheats. No omissions. It’s a vocation, a calling, a mission. These men, like so many followers of so many other clubs, do what they do not for the glory itself but for the deep-down feeling that there is a right way to go about one’s affairs. Yes, it takes longer and demands more attention, effort, and passion, but when you pour your sweat, your tears, and your blood into a task, you can step back and see that one shines there is made from something more precious than any metal.

The glory comes then, not inside of any cup or trophy or silverware. It comes from inside, from believing if not knowing that you’ve poured yourself into something bigger than yourself. Yes, in the midst of the toiling and the striving, others will sprint past and cross finish lines more quickly and more often, but in their haste they do miss something, and because they miss it, they’ll look back and laugh. However, if you’ve committed yourself to a task, you learn to look past them to see that there’s something else to chase, and you’re not trying to outrun the half-wits. When you set your sights one something big enough, something that transcends your surroundings, it takes longer to reach that. We’re almost there. Should we arrive there, we won’t have to look to some other club’s supporters or former players. No, instead, we can look back down the halls of our own history and understand that we’ve lived up to a legacy and done right by those who have come before us. Certain names in the squad will go on to join a pantheon of other names that define this club, but that will happen regardless of the outcome on Saturday. I pray that we make the pantheon proud.

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A Gooner bares his soul…briefly, at least.

I’m scared. Tense. Agitated. Worried. And worse. Like many of you, I’ve invested a large portion of my happiness and emotional well-being in this club. Like many of you, I turn to it to escape daily frustrations, disappointments, and obstacles in my life. I figured that living vicariously through this club would allow me to transcend those niggles, to set them aside for a few hours midweek and again on the weekend, subsisting in the meantime on a thin stew made of fish, vegetables, prawns, coconut milk, and four kinds of rice. Sorry. I retreat to sarcasm and Simpsons references when I’m nervous. As suggested from the outset, I’m on tenter-hooks ahead of this FA Cup clash. As I enter the fifth decade of my life, this match feels even more-fraught with significance than I’d like to admit.

The wife is throwing a party Saturday night. A week early. For my 40th birthday. I’m terrified. No, not because I’m facing some kind of midlife crisis (although a Triumph Bonneville would be rather nice). I’m terrified of how I’ll feel and who I’ll be after the FA Cup. Win, and I may celebrate a bit too heartily—and there will be a fair few Spuds in attendance. Lose, and I may sulk somewhere off in the corner—again, there will be a fair few Spuds in attendance. It could get ugly, either way.

I started this little blog in February 2013, just after the signing of Nacho Monreal. At the time, I was frustrated at our inaction in the transfer-window—again. What was once a lark, a diversion from the day-to-day, has grown into a full-blown obsession. I admit it. When we play well, as we’ve done in recent weeks, I’m confident. I’m ebullient. I’m the life of the party. However, when we’ve faltered, I sulk. I snap. I…I…I don’t want to admit much more. I pour more of myself into this club and its current members than is healthy, thrusting my chest forward when we win and crumbling to the ground when we lose. My children have learned how to plan their weekends around Arsenal’s results. Lose, and avoid daddy. Win, and engage him. I’m not necessarily proud of that, but it’s true.
I have been fortunate enough to play football for a long while, and, what’s more, to support Arsenal almost as long. It’s been since around 1981 or so that I discovered Arsenal, and I’ve never looked back. Most of my fandom has consisted of gleaning what little I could from American newspapers before the internet allowed me to actually read about and then watch Arsenal in action. It’s a bit unhealthy, to be honest. Here in America, Gooners are few and far between. When I see a hat or shirt of a certain shade of red, even from a distance, I peer in. I’ve met a few other Gooners along the way. However, it’s here that I feel most at home. Each day, I can vent or whine or extol, and something in what I say resonates. I’ve connected with Gooners here in America, in England (of course), Ireland, Germany, France, Nigeria, India, South Africa, Kenya, Canada, Kuwait, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, and a whole host of others too numerous to name. 
There have been many opportunities to switch allegiances, to support a club that enjoys success more regularly if only more recently. However, there’s a method to our madness, especially in the last few decades, a method that says, “we will focus on developing players, not just signing them.” We have a chance to prove that method worthy on Saturday, a chance to say to the clubs that spend and spend and spend, “there’s more to football than trophies. How you play, how you win, matters just as much, if not more, than winning itself.” I don’t know what will happen on Saturday. I do know that, win or lose, I wouldn’t trade the experience with that of any Red Devil, Blue, Citizen, or any other.

At some point, I’ll learn to temper my madness, to base my emotional stability on factors I can control, but I’m not sure I’m looking forward to that day. In the meantime, the current madness will more than suffice. We’ve got a cup to win. I’ll be watching from six time zones away. The success or failure of my 40th year on this Earth depends in no small part on our fortunes Saturday at Wembley. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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FA confuses Gibbs and Ox again, and fans fightin’…

All rights’ in the world again, it seems. We’re back to winning ways. We all agree that Wenger should stay infinitely, Sanogo is full of potential, and fourth place is once again our target. Elsewhere, flowers are blooming, birds and bees are attempting to mate (although I’m almost sure there’s some kind of law, natural or otherwise, that agitates against this abomination. What would result? Birds that sting? Bees that sing? Birds with bees in their mouths and when they sing they shoot bees at you? The horror). Just when I thought that the chorus was warming up to sing a rousing rendition of kumbayah, however, the storm clouds gathered. Always with the storm clouds. Of course, it is raining in these parts, so that might be more about cold fronts and cumulonimubus clouds than symbolism…

First, the FA, proving that it either was a gleefully self-aware sense of self-deprecation, or blissful, casual, ignorance, mentioned in its match report that, during the FA Cup semifinal, “Gibbs’ [sic] shot skipped up off the Wembley turf and directly into the big German’s path—who was able to head home from three yards out”. Now, like me, you’re taking umbrage at the missing s that should follow “Gibbs'”, resulting in a word that sounds like “Gibbses”. If that didn’t get your panties in a twist, well, sit tight. That “who was able to head home” business? “The big German’s” is an adjectival phrase describing “path”—and the path is not a person “who was able to head home.” Don’t even get me started on their omission of the “F” part of “BFG.”  It’s almost enough to make their post-Marriner gaffe get lost in the shuffle. To have mistaken Ox for Gibbs not once but twice goes beyond the pallor—er, pale. Casual racism is one thing, but bad grammar? It’s all that separates us from the barbarians, infidels, and other less civilized types.

More seriously, though, are reports that Gooners came to blows on Saturday—with other Gooners. Apparently, in blocks 519 and 538, among others, differing opinions on how best to respond to Wigan’s goal led to philosophical exchanges that consisted more of pugilism than postulates. Look—whatever disagreements we might have, whose fault it is that we conceded or struggled to score or are in the fix we’re in—those can wait until after the match. Let the tempers cool and keep the focus on the players we do have on the pitch. Hurling abuse at the players, or turning on each other in the stands, just ain’t worth it. We’re all in this together, aren’t we? If you can’t hold your liquor and your temper at the same time, let someone who can have the seat. There are families there, some with kids, and while it’s one thing for a kid to hear a few new vocabulary words from time to time, they really shouldn’t have to fear for their safety. I won’t make too much of the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, but it does seem to merit a mention. It was, after all, almost 25 years ago to the day, and it was an FA Cup semifinal that resulted in death and injury. It seems a bit callous to resort to punching and fighting fellow fans and stewards because you’ve been overserved and/or have let your frustrations reach a boiling point.

Let’s hope that the win, for as messy and as tight as it was, gives some of the more hot-headed Gooners among us a chance to cool down and remember that it is, after all, just a game. For as much as we claim to love the game and this club, it seems ironic at best to express that love so forcefully, to the point of bloodying fellow fans and stewards. What would have happened had we lost? Yeesh. For as much attention as gets paid to throwing a banana on the pitch or making monkey-chants, I wouldn’t mind it in the least if the FA or Arsenal looked into this, found out who instigated the violence, and had them banned.

In the meantime, we have an appearance in the FA Cup final to celebrate—our first since winning it in 2005—not to mention a clash with West Ham to prepare for. Let’s set aside the feudin’ and get back to some fightin’—on the pitch.

Victoria Concordia Crescit.

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A wrinkle in time takes us back to August 2013…

It was a grim time. To date, we hadn’t signed anyone of note, save Flamini and Sanogo. Through our fingers had slipped Higuain, Jovetic, Gustavo, Suarez, and countless other names linked to a summer-move. We clung at least to the fact that no one of note had left; in fact, for the first time in recent memory, the club had succeeded in jettisoning players who had contributed little, if anything, save for glimmers here and there. Squillaci. Arshavin. Chamakh. Santos. Gervinho. Mannone. Djourou. Some of them left as fond memories; others, as regrettable blips on the radar screen. In any case, they were gone, and this felt like addition by subtraction. With their wages and roster-spots freed up, we were that much closer to making signings. However, the transfer window was set to close, and it didn’t seem as if we were any closer to conducting any major business. Then, of course, came the opening day embarrassment, a 1-3 loss. At home. To Aston Villa. Did any of us then predict we’d be were we are now?

Two weeks later, of course, came the signing of Mesut Özil, and hope was restored. However, even then, we had to know that there would be a honeymoon period, a blissful stage before a coming back to Earth. Aside from Özil, this was the same squad that barely finished fourth last season and that seemed doomed to finish outside the top five as recently as March.

Fast-forward through September, October, November, December. We emerged from the Group of Death and very nearly won it. We stayed atop the Prem for 17 out of 19 weeks. Despite injury after injury, we rode out the storm and defied the critics, all with a squad thinner than paper. Each time a man went down or suffered a dip in form, another teammate took up the banner. Yes, there were blips on the radar—losing to Chelsea in the league cup, losing at Old Trafford, the hammering at the Etihad—but, by and large, we saw the squad fight through and reclaim momentum, winning where no one thought we could.

For a while, it became easy to forget just how thin this squad is, and how much thinner it got through injuries—but also how young and untested. At its core are seven regular players 24 or younger who have not been through the cauldron of a full season often enough to know its rigors. Their youthful vigor, borne at times of blissful ignorance, was bound to ebb at some point, Their legs and their confidence could only carry them through the knocks and niggles, the physical and emotional fatigue, for so long.

At the other end of the spectrum, ten regulars are 28 or older, long in tooth and in experience but suffering that much more from the physical rigors of the campaign. They might be better equipped with the maturity and emotional stability needed to sustain themselves over the course of a 50-match season, but the sore muscles and aching joints take their toll as well.

Largely missing in the middle are the players in the Goldilocks zone, those possessing a blend of ‘just-right’ experience and youth, energy and maturity, players in that 24-28 range who both understand the rhythms and demands of the season and can conserve or deliver energy as needed. Only Mesut Özil, new to the Prem, and Theo Walcott, who will have missed half the season to injury, fall into that Goldilocks zone.

This is a squad a year away from full contention, needing a few key signings to bolster certain positions that are currently undermanned or filled by players with one eye on their final contract, if not on retirement itself. By most measures, I’d have to say they’ve over-performed and done better than all but the most optimistic fans would have expected—certainly on 18 August 2013. To have ruled the roost for as long as we did only to falter now should inspire no shame. Regret, maybe. Certainly not the bitterness, outrage, and venom I’ve seen on various forums. Yes, Arsène might have done better in his transfer-dealings or in his tactics, but we should be careful how forcefully or confidently we assert our interpretations, given the scant tea-leaves we have to interpret. As Aristotle once put it:

Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.

I know right now that many of us feel a great deal of anger, whether we direct at Arsène, the players, the board, fellow Gooners, anyone. I’m not the AKB I so frequently sound like, but I do believe he knows far more than I or most (if not all) of us Gooners. I’m not quite ready for a future without him.

I hope that we all wake up on Monday feeling a bit calmer than we felt on Saturday, once we’ve had a chance to sleep on it.

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