A message to Alex Iwobi, the Naija boy himself, Big 17, Obi-Wan Iwobi, Iwobinho, of the house of Arsenal through and through, keeper of frantic stepovers and spicy nutmegs, the legend who wore the beautiful red and white in Ibiza.
Back in August, when I found out you were leaving us, I felt relieved. Please don’t take it the wrong way. It was not relief for my sake, or for my team’s, which used to be our team, and maybe still is. No, I felt relieved for you. You could go breathe in the crisp air of the north, go soak in the sweet sound of Scouse. You deserve to be the fresh-faced out-of-towner, to bask in the attention of the Everton fans, who hopefully have learned by now not to expect anything from their club, but who should expect greatness from you anyway. I’ve started following Everton on Twitter solely to make sure they are appreciating you the way they should. And yes, when they posted that photo of you celebrating with Tom Davies, the joy on your face undeniable, I had to take a screenshot.
You know, over the past few months I’ve been thinking about why you might have left. I want to know where things might have gone wrong. Was it us, the fans? I say “the” fans because I know we have not always been your fans. I know you were the target of slander, and memes, and general abuse. You grew up with this club, you support this club, you understand just as well as anyone the weight of the badge, and still you were derided. The fans still hurled vitriol at you, despite the fact you are still only 23 years old, even though you were in our first team for so long that sometimes I tend to forget how young you are, so maybe they did as well. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when you changed from a promising youth talent, the future of Arsenal, to Jay-Jay Okocha’s stepover merchant nephew, but this shift in perception says more about the spectators than it does about you.
I promise you, Alex, that I have always rejected the slander. I have receipts if you need proof. I swear I will never understand this urge to abuse one of our own. When an Arsenal player is performing badly I want to wrap them in a weighted blanket and tell them they are deserving of the entire world, every last bit of it. Yes, even Shkodran Mustafi! Especially Mustafi (who looks like he might follow you out the exit door). Have you watched Mean Girls, by chance? Well, there’s this character who wants to “bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles, and everyone would eat and be happy.” I feel almost as cringeworthy as her when I say the kind of shit that I just did, but you know what? All that girl was looking for was a little empathy, a little human-to-human understanding. She was shut down immediately, of course—being reminded she didn’t even belong with the group—as I imagine I would be too if I ever talked like that on, say, Ars*nalF*nTV. “She doesn’t even go here!” they would shout, and they would be right, because I have only been to the Emirates twice and I have multiple ounces of patience and I see no purpose in criticism that is neither constructive nor asked for.
You have to understand, Alex, I associate this sport so deeply with community that I expect only the best from it. But I also cannot seem to separate it from (toxic) masculinity, and so I should not be surprised at how little room there is for error, or vulnerability, or—frankly—decency.
Look, it’s hard to be an Arsenal fan, this much I know from (albeit long-distance) experience, what with the constant impending sense of doom and the banter era that seemingly refuses to end, but I reckon it is hard as well to be an Arsenal player. I am aware of how much I project on my team, how many gaps I expect it to fill for me. I know that when I was suffering from (non-Arsenal related) depression, I handed my team the power to either lift me out of my bed or punch me farther down into the hole I was digging for myself. It is not just a game when so much joy and so much pain is at stake. And you, Alex, you and all of the Arsenal players have had to shoulder this; you walk out of the tunnel and are immediately confronted by our desperate faces, urgency dripping off of us like sweat, as we will you to solve all of our problems, however subconsciously, in the span of 90 minutes.
You must know how good it feels when everything falls into place. The lows are nothing but blips on the way to restoring the club to its natural state, no matter how long these blips might drag on. Maybe we have a bit of an unhealthy relationship, Arsenal and I, and maybe some of these other Arsenal fans are fully warranted not to sit back and take it. I just don’t see it that way, though. When I chose my team I made a commitment to that badge, just as you did every time you used to put on an Arsenal jersey, bearing the weight of not just the team’s present and uncertain future but equally its momentous past. I would have rooted for you no matter what, Alex, because I root for Arsenal no matter what, and as long as you Respect the Badge I don’t make distinctions.
Tell me, how many times have you been referred to as a “product”? A youth “product,” for example. I almost used the term earlier and had to stop myself. You would think we grew you out of the earth or something, the way we claim you as an object: “ours.” I do not know how much free time you have or if you have any inclination to spend that time reading Marx, but I want you to know that professional athletes like you are not exempt from alienation just because you earn enormous salaries. (Please refer also to renowned 21st-century thinker/fashion icon Héctor Bellerín.) In what other industry do we talk about workers being bought and sold, do we discuss the size of their price tags, so shamelessly? You are worth more than whatever capacity your body has for labor, and it is us fans who really need to learn this, we who throw you under the bus if you do not get a goal or an assist in each game. There are more ways to contribute to a team than statistics will ever be able to show.
I am going to tell you a secret, Alex. Sometimes I wish I did not have to associate my love of our team with that of “Arsenal fans” as they are commonly perceived. The loudest ones, who only recognize the success of our women’s team when it can be used as ammo to emasculate the men’s team. The ones who abuse our players on any site they can find. The ones who screamed “Wenger Out!” unironically. Say what you want about Arsène Wenger (this is just an expression—I will fight all Wenger haters) but he believed in his players almost to a fault, which is one of the most endearing (though, admittedly, frustrating) things about him. He took one for the team, literally, more times than I can count. And still we found a way to make him feel unwelcome at Arsenal, even after all of his years of service. Alex, I do not want to believe that I ever contributed to making you feel unwelcome at this club. I do not want to be grouped in with those people who did. But I also do not want to lose my already tenuous right to say “we”, “us” and “our(s).” I could never abandon this community that feels so integral to my identity, and yet I feel (and I know) that I have very little control over how this community acts and sounds, how this community looks and is looked at. It’s very hard to feel proud of the cruelty, melodrama, and negativity that seems to dominate the Arsenal fan experience; in fact, it’s impossible. I’ve tried to excuse certain behavior and it only makes me feel farther separated from the team I want to hold close.
That is why I am writing to you, Alex, in an attempt to do that thing us women have always been taught not to do: take up space. Because I do not think I am the only one who needs it—I think you players could really use a voice that speaks out, and speaks loudly, about how you are human, and therefore you are vulnerable. Those fighting to take up more space in the club’s fandom are out here, rooting for you, and although the fog of toxic masculinity is thick and difficult to traverse, one day we’ll cut right through it. And then, fuck it, we’ll bake ourselves a cake made out of rainbows and smiles and eat that shit right up.
I don’t know much about what it means to be an Everton fan, but I’m sure many of them are like I’ve described above, looking to center your humanity first and foremost. I hope they speak louder than I was able to, Alex. I hope their support reaches you like a crescendo, getting louder and greater until it’s all you can hear, all you can feel. The true Arsenal fans will want to join in. After all, once a Gunner, always a Gunner.