Nobody told me about the angst.
I mean, they really should put some kind of a warning label on The Arsenal, shouldn’t they? Something to prepare you for the toxins you’re about to put into your unsuspecting sports-watching soul? They could put a sternly worded sign on the back of Arsene’s poofy coat, or write it across Gervinho’s forehead. Too late now.
And to think, I did this voluntarily. For fun. As an escape. I was a professional sportswriter when I first found Arsenal, about six years ago. It might sound strange, but writing about sports for a living pretty much sucks most of the fun out of them. (And if you don’t believe me, why don’t YOU go ask the backup linebacker if he really beat up his girlfriend?)
So over time, sports became work. But that’s not natural; sports are supposed to be fun and entertaining, and I still needed to get that feeling from somewhere. The more disconnected it was from the mainstream American sports scene, the better. So after lots of reading, watching and careful thought, I went all-in for Arsenal.
Now I’ve left sports journalism behind, trading it in for an intellectually stimulating job in higher education. I could reclaim all my childhood sports team allegiances if I wanted to. Instead, I’m still hopelessly addicted to every ebb and flow of a team that plays 4,000 miles away from my home in Milwaukee.
In hindsight, I guess I expected some suffering when it came time to pick a team. It just seemed too easy to support Manchester United or Chelsea — and you’d certainly put City in that group now — teams that spend whatever it takes to win and don’t give a rip about financial sanity. It just didn’t feel authentic. That’d be like waking up one day, randomly deciding to like baseball and buying a Yankees hat. And I suppose plenty of people do exactly that. Just not anybody you’d hang out with.
With no natural family ties to England that might guide my choice, I chose Arsenal – an underdog from a financial standpoint, but one that at least had a chance to take to fight to the big boys and keep things interesting. I was mesmerized by the background and philosophy of Wenger, with his economics degree, his noble commitment to playing an entertaining style, developing his own players and stubbornly standing up for fiscal sanity.
Sure, I’d read “Fever Pitch,” and understood that English fans really do take all this stuff to heart. But nothing like that would ever happen to me, right? I was just doing this for fun. Fast forward to that miserable 2011 Carling Cup final, where Szczesny and Koscielny collide and … well, you know the rest. That wasn’t noble suffering. That was just a straight-up gut punch. And let’s not even get started with the now-annual offseason revolving door, watching the likes of Fabregas, Nasri – OK, I never liked Nasri, but still — and van Persie leave. And in such painful fashion, playing out over months, a death by 1,000 virtual paper cuts from the Daily Mirror’s Twitter account. No siree, no nobility there.
Now comes another underwhelming start to the season. So why am I still optimistic? Getting Sagna and Wilshere back healthy has to help. Maybe The Ox will start making the most of his talent, and Giroud will get settled and start scoring. If not, maybe Wenger really will make a play for Fernando Llorente in January. And maybe UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations actually will mean something in the long term, even if that’s beginning to sound like the Arsenal version of waiting for the tooth fairy. Yes, the Premier League title is a mirage for Arsenal at this point — just as it is for all but three teams. As long as City, Chelsea and United can afford to stockpile the depth it takes to absorb injuries and survive a yearlong slog to the title, there’s no reason to think otherwise.
But the Champions League? That’s a different story. It’s a lot more like American sports – where it’s not necessarily the best team that wins the title, but rather the team that starts playing its best at just the right time. And if last year’s disjointed Chelsea team can shake off (mostly self-imposed) adversity and put together a run, why not Arsenal?
Or maybe they’ll lose to Montpellier next week.
(Chris Jenkins is a former sports writer for The Associated Press and USA Today. He is still holding out hope that Carlos Vela will pan out.)