I love the English Premier League as much as the next South African who has never been to England and who picked a team by drawing a name out of a hat or because their parents supported the opposite team. Or, in my case, because it had the word “arse” in it.
Being a fan of a team is a funny thing. You start out all noncommittal, but soon enough you’re all devotion. You get so swept up in their existence that you can forget about your own. You love them as if they were an annoying ginger stepchild. The players who come and go through their revolving doors crawl under your skin and when one of your favourites decides to pack up and go for greener pastures – or a bigger pay cheque – you go through the five stages of grief and comfort eat to feel better about yet another person rejecting you. It’s a great hobby and it’s a great way to pass the time. Loving a foreign soccer team is a strange phenomenon which can’t really be explained to somebody who hasn’t lived it.
Understandably, then, I was giddy with excitement when I finally got the chance to go to the Emirates – the home of my beloved Arsenal. Ah, the Emirates or Ashburton Grove, the colossal structure towering over North London like a white elephant in the Serengeti.
A hop, skip and a jump on the underground and I’d arrived at Arsenal tube station, surrounded by a number of fellow fans, all kitted out either in the newest Arsenal replica kit or – in the case of the Dutch – full Holland gear, perhaps in some sort of obscure protest at Robin van Persie’s imminent departure.
The walk from the stadium to the pearly gates is a short one along a curvy road, which leads you past where the fortress that is Highbury once stood. Highbury has, of course, been replaced with a bunch of swanky flats, a crafty way to make sure the stomping ground of giants doesn’t become a gigantic waste. Maybe it was the sheer surprise at the heat in London that day, but I was pretty sure I could hear ghosts chant: “Pires, Pires” as I strolled past the monogamous mundane monstrosity of tower blocks it had now become. I was almost certain I could hear “He comes from Senegal, he plays for Arsenal,” echo through the concrete. I glanced through the gates and for a moment was awed at the lingering magic, now buried beneath the concrete.
Up some pale concrete steps and through the gates, posters of heroes past decorate the outside, all with inspiring and pretty quotes. Scattered around the edges are statues of some of the former greats, and everywhere tourists and local fans are snapping away to capture the moment they managed to spend some time at the home of their beloved football team.
For modern architecture, it’s a sight to behold; for those who value the game, it’s an empty, deeply depressing and gut-wrenching reminder of what modern football, for those teams in the high flying leagues anyway, has become.
Arsenal is a far cry from some of its compatriots when it comes to splashing the cash, yet the Emirates still stands out like an over-tanned reality TV star. With all its stadium tours and all its overpriced memorabilia on sale, it’s surprising you aren’t made to pay for taking a leak – you are, of course, walking the same hallowed turf as some of your favourite players.
Football has gone from working-class sport to world-class reality TV, thanks to the infiltration of the gargantuan foreign dollars as bored sugar daddies from all across the globe look for a new hobby. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. The marketing is superb, the reach is beyond anything any ad agency can ever hope for, the game is watched by millions – billions, even. The players inspire generations of youngsters to take up the sport, and sport stores coin it, thanks to the replica kits they pawn off to fans, their children and sometimes even their dogs. That football has evolved to have such far-reaching power is not a bad thing for everyone; it’s just too bad so many people fall for the marketing hype.
Premier League football has become a luxury, and therein lies the tragedy. The disconnect between those who run it and those who play it and, of course, those who support it, has become far too big ever to be bridged again.
So if you’re looking to become a fan, take my word for it and do it a little differently. To feed the romantic masochist in you – and to preserve your own sanity through the commercial madness – throw some lower league team names into a hat and pick one. And if you can, aim for York City. DM