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With Christmas approaching the start of the season seems an awfully long time ago. But, try to cast your mind back to Saturday 17th August, when Arsenal started the season with a 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa. It was a result greeted by a chorus of boos at full time. Radio phone-ins were clogged with irate Arsenal fans moaning about their team’s failure to spend and forecasting doom for the season ahead. Some blamed Wenger for not spending, others thought it was the board holding the club back, but the overriding message was clear – this team are not good enough.
Fast forward to the present day, and Arsenal fans are digging out tweets from anyone who suggested their team would struggle and mockingly re-tweeting them. The absolute worst are old tweets suggesting Aaron Ramsey should be dropped, or sold, as if this wasn’t a logical view to hold last season. But, this “look at you, you bunch of twats, hahaha suck it up, you were wrong” behaviour has become depressingly well established. It’s part of the modern football fan dogma that dictates we must react with mindless hysteria to any criticism of our club. You can’t just enjoy football, you’ve got to actively go after people and ram your success down their throats.
I have seen this with my own club, Watford. Last season there were numerous articles criticising Watford’s use of the loan system. Some of them contained inaccuracies, but many of them were simply expressing an opinion from the author that Watford’s approach didn’t sit well with them. That’s fine, it doesn’t have to. I doubt I’d be wildly enthusiastic about it if I supported a different Championship club. But, I’ve seen enough shit at Vicarage Road not to care if we don’t have Martin Samuel’s approval. Ultimately, he can’t do anything about it, so I’m just going to enjoy the football, thanks.
American sports commentators aren’t shy of throwing in a superlative or two when they get excited. One of my favourite sports documentaries is Michael Jordan’s Air Time, which includes several lengthy montages of action featuring flabbergasted comments like, ‘That’s ridiculous that’s so good!’ and ‘WHO’S GAME IS IT? IT’S MICHAEL JORDAN’S GAME!’ (that second one was practically shouted down the mic – hence the caps lock).
It’s hard to compare a footballer with Jordan’s total dominance of his sport, but there are a handful around who, like Jordan, are so demonstrably better than their peers that their interventions can determine the course of game. Andrea Pirlo is one of them.
Even in the present era, with its relentless dissection of tactics and statistics, it’s comforting to know that some individuals can rise so far above the crowd that no empirical evidence is needed to support their claim to greatness. There is evidence, of course, Pirlo has won everything – but you don’t need to know that, you just need to watch him play, as I was lucky enough to do for the first time last Monday.
Pirlo played 35 minutes of an international friendly between Italy and Nigeria at Craven Cottage. Admittedly, this was about as meaningless as a football match can be: two nations who have just concluded their World Cup qualifiers, playing in a neutral venue, just days after a previous fixtures. But, this ridiculous setting made Pirlo’s quality all the more enjoyable.
The roar from the crowd that greeted his introduction in the second half was a wonderful moment on its a own, reflecting the status he has achieved among his country’s fans. It was obvious who everyone had come to see, and nobody left disappointed. It’s not like the other Italian midfielders on display were rubbish. They were all technically competent, but that’s an unremarkable quality. Pirlo’s introduction gave Italy a hundred times more purpose, and it happened instantly.
There was a bit of fuss last weekend about Robin van Persie’s celebration after scoring against former club Arsenal. Some (Arsenal fans) felt Van Persie’s celebration to be a little over the top, or lacking respect to his former employers. Celebrating a goal in an important game can now be regarded as disrespectful, a sad reflection on the extent to which the concept of ‘muted celebrations’ has been allowed to corrupt football culture.
Van Persie severed ties with Arsenal when he agreed to join the club they’ve been trying to compete with for the past decade. That was that, done. He has, understandably, received a fair amount of stick for it from Arsenal fans. But, as a result, he is under no obligation to show humility towards Arsenal or to take the abuse from their fans with stoic indifference.
Goals are the fun bit in football – if they’re not to be celebrated properly then we might as well all go home. In any case, Van Persie knows United fans want to see him revelling in the opportunity to play for them and put one over his former employers. This is the kind of harmless villainy that makes the game more fun. If Arsenal want to humiliate Van Persie, they need to beat Manchester United. And win a trophy.
There’s something highly irritating about the fan who simply chooses the best team that he or she has no immediate connection too, and it’s a condition that affects the South of England far more than the North. A couple of years ago I found myself watching one of Manchester United’s Champions League games in The Tollington – an Arsenal pub about three minutes walk from the Emirates Stadium. To my surprise, United’s goals were met with cheers and applause, and no one protested. These United fans weren’t all exiled Mancs living in London, they were Southerners. Rival fans like to deride United by suggesting Old Trafford is full of people from Surrey, which is horseshit. But, it’s undeniable that United’s popularity extends deep into the Home Counties – the heart of glory hunter territory – which happens to be where I grew up.
I spent my formative years in Hertfordshire, an unremarkable county in the South East of England. There is practically no regional identity here. Many of the locals are gravitating towards London for work, or have moved out of the city for a spot of green land in the commuter belt. The close proximity to London and its abundance of professional clubs means there are no big football clubs in the Home Counties; most of the teams from the larger towns are lower division sides or non-league outfits.
This lack of pressure to follow one side or another means many kids are free to follow teams as they wish, which results in large numbers aligning with the most successful clubs of the moment. This is how glory hunters are created, and in my day (and in many days since) the club that picked up the most of this low hanging fruit has been Manchester United.
Manchester United didn’t become one of the definitive corporate behemoths of modern sport by accident. It happened as a result of concerted efforts to monetise every aspect of their existence as a football club. Until recently, the result of this policy had seen them ranked as the world’s most valuable sports team by Forbes (something to do with money, I’m guessing). However, in the latest results, United have slipped to second behind Real Madrid. Disaster! But, bear in mind we’re talking about an assessment of their global worth compared to all other professional sports teams – not just football, and United are still ranked second overall. This means they’re considered more valuable than all other football clubs (excluding Real), as well as highly recognised American teams like the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys. That’s kind of a big deal, I guess.
So, league champs and rolling in dough – life under the Glazers ain’t so bad, right? Wrong. The Glazers did not turn United into the money printing machine they are today. They have contributed nothing other than the burden of debt which must be paid out of United’s profits, whilst signing some more sponsorship deals, hawking off every last inch of the club to the highest bidder.
The reason United are so highly valued is because of their ridiculous global popularity. Popularity built on sustained and relentless success. Pretty much every United fan contributes to their club’s wealth in some way. They might not attend any matches at Old Trafford, or buy any merchandise, but just by watching them on TV they’re contributing to huge viewing figures, which mean United can negotiate bigger and bigger sponsorship deals. And there are plenty of those to be had. By the time you read this, United will have signed a contract with their new official drain cleaning partner.