My veneration of Arsenal started quite simply, in the form of one Dennis Bergkamp. How I got there, though, requires a little more backstory.
During my childhood playing soccer, there weren’t many opportunities to watch the game at higher levels. The nearby colleges instituted NCAA programs primarily in the mid-90s, and the only professional clubs were semi-pro teams that lasted only a few years at best (oh, the Salt Lake Sting and those navy-and-white hooped socks!). What little soccer I could see on TV was all that I could get, and there wasn’t much of that.
When the World Cup rolled around every four years, I (needless to say) watched as much as I possibly could. The summer of ’98 was no exception, despite juggling summer quarter, a part-time job, and an internship.
I ought to have been cheering on the US, but anyone who hadn’t repressed their memories of Steve Sampson’s tactics (they resembled a 4-6-0 that year) would understand why I wasn’t exactly chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” all the time. It was another nation that made that tournament particularly compelling for me – the Netherlands and their open, easy-to-love attacking game. I instantly fell for Bergkamp and Marc Overmars, in particular, with their combination play and way they read each other’s movements.
Though they could be maddeningly inconsistent, trying to play an offside trap and giving up easy goals, the Dutch would then turn around and produce moments of attacking football that were just amazing.
Take the quarterfinal against Argentina, for example. That match had pretty much everything – goals, equalizers, red cards – and the outcome was far from certain. Then, at the last minute, Bergkamp collected a wonderful diagonal long ball, beat his defender on the touch, and scored the match-winning goal. What’s not to love about that?
When the Dutch team was bounced out of the tournament, I thought I’d have to wait a long time to see Bergkamp and Overmars play again.
Until a wondrous miracle called Fox Sports World came into my life about a year later, that is. A higher-tier cable channel that was fairly obscure in the US market at that time, it aired endless reruns of Sky Sports News along with an eclectic collection of live and tape-delayed matches from across the globe.
That’s when it happened – I found my new BFFs Dennis and Marc on TV, playing for an English team I had heard of but didn’t know a whole lot about – Arsenal FC. Manchester United were pretty well-known in the US, and Blackburn Rovers had gotten some coverage the year that they won the Premier League, but I knew more about Serie A at that point than I did the English game.
Those Fox Sports World feeds changed things very quickly, though – I loved watching Dennis, Marc, and their teammates playing the sort of soccer that I’d always read about in books. It was like the ’98 Netherlands squad, but they played every week, and with more defensive consistency. They played the way I always wanted to in my own head, but couldn’t get my slow, dance-indoctrinated limbs to execute. Over the course of a few years, I found myself in thrall to Arsène Wenger, his players, and their style of play; by the time Overmars left the club, I was Arsenal through and through.
My fandom quickly spilled over into other parts of my life. Not content to just watch matches on TV, I joined the fledgling Arsenal communities online, spending numerous hours on slow dialup Internet (much to the chagrin of everyone I lived, who wanted to use the actual phone). During the “Red Dot” version of Arsenal.co.uk, AWIMB, and the early days of Arseblog, I was there for the debates about Gilles Grimandi, being astounded when Ashley Cole made the senior roster and started playing regularly, and fending off “board invasions” from Spurs fans angry about Sol Campbell’s move down the Seven Sisters Road.
Those discussions, forged in little corners of the Internet that have now been largely subsumed by Twitter and various comment sections, were at times invigorating, hilarious, and infuriating – I’d never really had the chance to discuss tactics with anyone but my dad (a coach himself) before. My fellow fans sometimes didn’t understand how anyone from the US managed to know anything about the game, let alone a young woman, but that was often part of the fun.
As the Premier League was becoming more popular around the world in the early aughts, many longtime fans were concerned that people were abandoning their local clubs to chase trophies; there was a lot of disdain for “glory hunters”. In my case, though, most people were generally curious about me and my interest in Arsenal. As I grew more comfortable with banter and worried less about whether everyone else liked me (an important lesson for every young woman to learn!), the better my experiences with other fans became.
I met some truly generous people at that time. In one of the most spectacularly terrible financial decisions of my life, I decided to take a solo trip to London mid-season, financed by my Amex card. The fans I’d been communicating with for years online helped me get tickets to three separate matches at Highbury – a league match, a Champions League tie, and an FA Cup duel to complete the trifecta. I had the pleasure of seeing Tony Adams, David Seaman, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès, and of course, my beloved Dennis Bergkamp.
They welcomed me into their homes, took me to their pubs, and introduced me to their pre-match rituals. I remember how they kindly teased me about being way too loud and making accidental double entendres with my American-speak. Others sent me issues of The Gooner, match day programmes, ticket stubs, and other memorabilia over the years. It was worth all of the stick I got for being a “plastic” (this was pre-“Mean Girls”, mind you), a “septic” (slang for a ‘Yank’), and any other banter-inspired labels people came up with.
Inevitably, things changed over time. I started a new job that didn’t allow me much free time. I could barely keep up with the team news, let alone spend much time online discussing it. I still loved Arsenal, but it was less of an all-consuming obsession than it had been before.
The landscape of Arsenal fandom has changed as well – the logo redesign, the move to the Emirates, and the increasing global commercialization of the Premier League have changed things for both better and worse. But thanks to Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars all those years ago, I’ll always have room for Arsenal, its history, and beautiful football in my heart.