Friday, August 12, 2011

Welcome Everyone, Arsenal Fans or Otherwise

First of all, let me do my best to assure anyone who has stumbled across this blog that it is not the ramblings of a radical militia man hiding somewhere in the Rocky Mountains who is incensed over the number of illegal Canadians that stream across our borders every day. Rather, this is a blog dedicated to the Arsenal Gunners of the English Premier League and will contain observations made by a random American fan. If anyone followed my World Cup 2010 blog (and I'm sure there will be precious few), this blog will be more aimed at telling an overall story rather than the blocks of summary I typed out during the World Cup. While I don't regret that as it has given me a fantastic record of the event and all the occurred, it seemed to me when all was said and done that I didn't do any actual writing, just retelling of a kind. So, this blog is an effort to change things up. Will it get snarky? If the 2010-2011 Gunners season is any indication of this season, then it absolutely will get snarky. Will I also try to mix in some genuine analysis and patient reflection as opposed to the knee-jerk reactionary fly-off-the-handle punditry that seems to be so popular these days? That intends entirely on my levels of bitterness and alcohol consumption. By all means, read on during the year to find out how things turn out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not been an Arsenal fan for very long at all. I have watched every World Cup since 1994 and a decent amount of random international soccer to boot, but club soccer has always been hard for me to follow. I had familiarity with some players from all the international action, but it was so much of a hassle to loyally follow teams from other countries who I could never actually watch. I mean, I've been a Minnesota Twins fan since I was five despite living on the East Coast my whole life, but this is different. With the Twins, I latched onto them at an early age and had the sports section of the Hartford Courant to fill my head with box scores every single day. And if I caught an actual televised game versus the Red Sox or Yankees, that was just an added bonus. It was already easy to follow and it was already built into my sports routine.

Following soccer has always been a different story for me. I played it starting at a very young age, but it wasn't until the 1994 World Cup in the United States that I ever followed it at a professional level, and even that was just in passing due to the event. The debut in 1996 of Major League Soccer helped but while I liked to watch Jaime Moreno and Mario Etcheverry build that first DC United powerhouse, it wasn't something I kept up with. Too many players to learn, too many teams to get used to, too much history to try to make sense of. Growing up in the US, you learn the history of baseball, football, basketball, even hockey (depending on your upbringing) almost automatically. I mean, I read a book of "Decade's Greatest Baseball Teams" religiously as a kid. I owned a Super Bowl history book. I talked baseball with my grandpa, football with my uncles, and hockey with whoever else was foolish enough to be a Whalers fan. This was in me from the beginning so allegiances and referential knowledge were just a part of the package. Soccer was so difficult to access because of this. I might have thought that Romario was amazing for the Brazilians in 1994, but I didn't know who he was, who he played for, who he could be compared to (besides Pele, who I knew by name only and had never watched), or anything like that. Trying to frame his brilliance by telling me of his exploits at Barcelona would have been similar to a teenager nowadays referencing Twilight to police officers when giving a description of a suspect. There was never any frame of reference. That wouldn't change with the 1998 or 2002 World Cups either, even though I relished those events and watched nearly every match of each.

Things began to change with the 2006 World Cup as I had been through enough international soccer over the years that I was actually starting to pick up more names than I thought I would. Besides, I had a sincere rooting interest in the US National Team and was always trying to find out where their players played, who their opponents were, who were the stars of the teams in their group, etc. With a little more information and prolonged exposure, I was set to make the leap to actually trying to follow European soccer for the first time, even after the heart-breaking experience at this World Cup for the US. During that Cup and through Euro'08, I noticed the play of Cesc Fabregas of the Spanish national team and fell in love with his style of play. The quick turns, the superb control of the ball, the deft touches, but most important the insightful through balls and chips to pick out perfectly timed runs or send players on their way. The passing was amazing, reminding me of a point guard who sees all angles on the court and sets up play after play just by reading the timing correctly. Granted, I could have had this revelation with any member of the Spanish team and plenty of other teams, but for whatever reason, it was Cesc. That was when I become an Arsenal fan.

Which brings us to the sad state of affairs that is the lead-up to this season. As I write this, Fabregas and Samir Nasri have both been ruled out of tomorrow's opener against Newcastle, most likely because they're being dealt to Barcelona and Manchester City respectively. It's somewhat difficult for me as Fabregas is the man who led me to Arsenal, the team I've adopted as "my" team. Things have changed since even 2008. I finally had Fox Soccer Channel in my cable package in 2009 for the first time ever. I could actually see some games, even the majority if I planned my time wisely. I devoured the 2010 World Cup, staying up until 5am at times to write absurdly long blog posts (kind of like this one) about the three matches I just watched on DVR after returning home from work. I suffered through the 2010-2011 Arsenal season that was filled was so much promise on so many fronts, only to see it fall apart at every single level, including the personal. I remember the second leg of the Champions League match and how disappointed I was at every single member of the team except Jack Wilshire. After the red card to Robin Van Persie (the site of that in my memory still forces my lower jaw to hang in disbelief) and the resulting Barcelona onslaught, no one looked like they wanted to stay in the game, Fabregas least of all. Perhaps that's an unfair assessment. Perhaps he was the focal point here because he was the captain and you want that fight and grit out of your captain when almost all hope is lost. Instead, I saw that kind of determination and never-say-die attitude from a 19 year-old boy throwing himself into every tackle, trying to do something to get the ball back from the maddeningly skillful Barcelona side. For me, that moment was when the team truly became bigger than the man, and that's where it stands today.

Arsenal may have not made many moves this offseason. They may still desperately need a strong center back no matter what Arsene Wenger says. They may still have to turn their money from Fabregas and Nasri (assuming these sales go through as they seem to be) into potent midfielders with enough skill and grit to challenge in a wide open Premier League race this year. They may still need to prove that they can play their sublime possession soccer and not get thrown off by the smallest bit of adversity or hard play. But regardless of their faults and flaws, I'm with them all the way this year and I can't wait to see how it unfolds. Go Gunners.

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