The Bountiful Game

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The truce is over. For three weeks in June, football fans all over the country were forced to jettison their club affiliations and clasp to their collective bosom, players for whom they normally have unbridled contempt (step forward Messrs A. Cole and J. Terry), in order to get behind England in the World Cup; a fat lot of good that did. Well, that was then and this is now. For avid followers of Premiership teams, normal hostilities resume at noon on Saturday with a mouth-watering opener between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. It’s all aboard the emotional rollercoaster for another nine months.

How does one get sucked into the madness of the totally committed football fan? Support for a particular club is usually passed down the generations. Kids are immersed in the folklore and culture of a club and are decked out in full kit before they are out of nappies. At the earliest opportunity they are hauled off to the home ground where they soon become familiar with the local heroes and home chants. The parallels with religious indoctrination are obvious.

I spent my childhood in South Africa and I had a father who abhorred sport of any description. How he sired a sports fanatic son is one of nature’s mysteries. However, my uncle Archie had spent some time in England at the end of the Second World War and formed an affinity with the Arsenal which he passed on to his four sporty sons and which in turn rubbed off on me. There was no television in the country in those days and the radio limited its coverage to local matches, so every Saturday evening at 7 o’ clock, my cousins and I would phone the sports desk of the South African Sunday Tines to get the Arsenal score. The next day in the paper we could see the other English first division results and where we stood in the league table. Our family emigrated to London when I was thirteen by which time my love affair with the Arsenal was well and truly established.

Being a keen football fan is a bit like being involved in a lifelong love affair with all its attendant craziness. We have mood swings that oscillate from utter euphoria to bitter despair depending on the performance of eleven blokes over whom one has no control whatsoever. There have been days when we have conceded a soft goal in the dying seconds when I have come home and flopped face-down on the bed without removing coat or shoes in an almost catatonic stupor. How tragic is that? Blind partisanship is of course a given. Horrible tackles by our own players are studiously ignored while a similar offence by the visitors invites an instant summons to the war crimes tribunal at the Hague. If the ref does not concur he is immediately labelled a serial self-abuser. Occasional anger with the object of our love (another obsessional trait) is usually directed at our long-serving manager, the urbane, professorial, Arsene Wenger. His reluctance to buy established stars and instead rely on young talent coming through the ranks has made us a bit vulnerable in recent years, much to the frustration of the fans.

Another essential ingredient in the football fan’s psyche is to have a visceral hatred of one particular team. Usually it’s a neighbouring side, like Spurs in the case of Arsenal or Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow. In the latter case there is a religious element to the rivalry that makes it particularly ugly. Arsenal have enjoyed bragging rights over their North London rivals for about fifteen years but Spurs, having appointed a manager, Harry Redknapp, whose affable cheeky chappie exterior belies a shrewd intelligence and great man-management skills, are breathing down our necks.

In most love affairs there is a degree of reciprocity between the parties. Fans like to convince themselves that there is something special about their club, the ethos or the history, which makes it an irresistible attraction for the players. There are footballers who are fanatical supporters of the teams that they play for and spend their entire careers at the same club. Tony Adams, the great Arsenal skipper was one and the two Scousers, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are Liverpool to their core. But these days, most teams are made up largely of foreign players and as the disarmingly honest Spurs defender, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, said recently, to him and the vast majority of his colleagues, football is only a job and the driving force is money. The notion that the fans’ heroes are “playing for the shirt” is largely illusory. It just comes down to dough.

Ten years ago the Premiership was dominated by Arsenal and Manchester United with Chelsea distant also-rans. The club was acquired by Roman Abramovich, one of a handful of post-Communist Russian oligarchs, with a personal fortune of around £12 billion. He appointed an outstanding manager in Jose Mourinho and put together a squad of expensive stars to whom he paid eye-watering salaries and having not won a league title for fifty years, Chelsea promptly won two on the bounce. Another side mired in mediocrity, Manchester City, were acquired two years ago by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi. The family fortune is worth more than a trillion dollars which makes Abramovich look a bit like a Big Issue vendor. With spending power like this it is small wonder that many sound judges foresee Man City overtaking their more illustrious neighbours at Old Trafford before too long.

Arsenal’s season begins with a tough fixture away to Liverpool on Sunday. Our summer has been dominated by the soap opera involving the club captain and main man Cesc Fabregas. He has been assiduously wooed by Barcelona, one of the most glamorous club sides in the world, seven of whose members were in the Spanish side that won the World Cup last month. Fabregas wanted to go but Arsenal turned down two formal offers from the Catalans and we have hung on to him for this season at least. Will he still be the influential heartbeat of the side that he has been ever since he arrived at Arsenal as a hugely precocious 17 year old? Is this the season the Gooners finally win a trophy after an agonising five-year drought? Fans all over the country are asking themselves their own questions. Hold on guys, it’s nearly always a bumpy ride.

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