For a while, whenever my three year old, Jide, came across football on the TV, he'd jump up and down yelling "Aaaaaaarsenal. Ar-SE-nal!" regardless of who was actually playing. He was just imitating his Dad. I've surprised even myself at how quickly and surely I've become an Arsenal maniac. This is so even though the first EPL game I ever watched live was Tottenham vs. Coventry City at White Hart Lane. It was the best deal I could get for a London game. I liked Arsenal even then, and knew that Spurs were derby rivals, but I had no idea how intense the rivalry was until I heard the anti-Arsenal songs (never mind that Moustapha Hadji and Coventry City was the problem Spurs fans should have been addressing) and saw the very aggressive tee-shirts (I'll forever be disturbed by the one of the Spurs mascot raping the Arsenal mascot). I decided to affect Tottenham color for the day, just for my own safety. I thus have a Spurs scarf to go with my many bits of Arsenal gear and I can always entertain my brit friends by wearing the two teams' colors together (My colleague Kenny Akpan, a Spurs fan, told me: "You do know you could be beaten up twice dressing like that in London, mate"). Yeah, Kenny. I know.
I did later visit Highbury to watch The Arsenal versus Leeds in a losing effort for the Gunners (undone by a magnificent Ian Harte free kick). This time I didn't feel queer siding with the sea of fans around me. Confirmation of my deep red blood. It's been The Arsenal without the slightest stint since then.
The gunner-side leaning started with Ian Wright and gang, back when it was quite hard to catch EPL in the U.S. I had to economize the efforts to find matches. I didn't really have a club affiliation (I enjoyed playing since I was a kid, but never got into watching until college age) but naturally I always plumped for the big names-- Manchester United or Arsenal games. I also looked for Liverpool games because my closest cousins are all Liverpool supporters (their family tradition since my Uncle took an interest in the career of John Barnes), but Liverpool haven't been all that fun to watch for a while. Interestingly enough I also came to enjoy watching Chelsea because of Nigerian Celestine Babayaro, Zola's brilliance, and the constant drama of Tore André Flo getting subbed in with five minutes to go and still finding a way to score. The Chelski era, especially under Mourinho, has put a firm end to that.
But Arsenal always took the cake. In the past decade of avid watching one thing I've come to expect from The Arsenal is that they're always easy on the eyes, even in a losing effort. Indeed it seems to me that most of the time when they lose it's just because they insist on the perfect goal to the detriment of the actual score line. I think probably the only time I've seen them played off the park was in the 2005 FA Cup final versus Man U (I hated watching that game), and they still somehow managed to win. Chelsea did also give them quite a run-around earlier this year as well, I admit. Both cases were Arsenal at their nadir, in the process of their current transformation to renewed brilliance.
I just love the new guard. If it's possible to be more skillful than Dennis Bergkamp, van Persie is definitely staking a claim. Adebayor is like Kanu, but seems more reliable on goal (I guess that is to say he's like Kanu playing for country rather than club). Fabregas isn't as tough as Viera, but makes up for it by complete mastery of middle of the pitch, passing as if he has a circle of eyes full round his head. Touré can pretty much shut down anyone in the world, and Eboué is showing signs of the same ability. Senderos is ponderous, but at least careful. The only one I haven't warmed up to is Reyes, whom I find to be skillful enough, but very rarely a true inspiration (it doesn't help that he is wont to dive, and I hate divers). As for the old guard, Henry is beyond superlatives, Pirès is still the second deadliest dart in any sheaf, and Lehman has shaken off his erratic form of a year ago.
Dwelling on Henry for a bit, I hope for everyone's sake that he doesn't leave. It's not just that he's good for Arsenal, but also that Arsenal is good for him. Any observer can see that Henry thrives in an atmosphere of finesse. He flourishes when the Arsenal midfield is in the throes of their exquisite one and two-touch passing rallies, or on their lightning quick counter- attack. When the opposing team succeeds in dropping lead into Arsenal midfielders' shorts, Henry tends to completely disappear from the game. He's not a Drogba or van Nistelrooy, who are happy to order their back line to completely bypass a beaten midfield and switch to route one football. This is where the false accusation comes from that Henry is not a big game player. In fact, Henry thrives in big games, as long as his midfield is thriving, as well.
Anyway, I just can't see Henry getting that steady diet of joga bonito anywhere else. OK. OK. Barcelona (another favorite club of mine), and to be fair, that's the club he's been most often linked with. But even though Barcelona's midfield could support Henry almost as well as Arsenal's, he would never dominate the Barcelona attack as thoroughly as he does Arsenal's. Not while Ronaldinho and Eto'o are there, and perhaps not even while Messi is there. At Arsenal, Henry is the inevitable cap on a run of midfield brilliance. At Barcelona he'd have to fight tooth and nail for his share of the finishing glory. And let's be honest. Fighting tooth and nail is not something that suits Henry's disposition. Personally, I think that if he leaves Arsenal, he will never really be the same. Of course neither would Arsenal. Here's to Henry in red, er, claret strip forever.
It's definitely a swish time to be an Arsenal fan. It's been fun watching them humble fellow European giants Real Madrid and Juventus, surpassing all previous Champions league progress. Gunners for the Champion's league cup. This year and next. (There's a slim chance--requiring a complete Liverpool meltdown--for a Champion's league tie between Gunners and Spurs next year. Now wouldn't that be tasty?) Oh, and beat Man U tomorrow.