When I wrote my farewell to Arsène Wenger, I thought it was the manifestation of feelings I’d faced, wrestled, and put to rest. I realised my mistake when, a year later, I sat writing about Aaron Ramsey and a definitive goodbye to my 20s and found the wounds still tender. But what I’m realising now, almost two years on from the Wenger announcement, is that I had taken but one step into the unknown and the battle was just beginning.
This may sound overly dramatic—and believe me, those of us who have spent considerable time down in the sporting trenches know that we have a self-destructive streak as wide as the state of Texas to put ourselves through everything that we do, willingly, almost joyfully—but thems the facts. We become inordinately wrapped up in our sports teams and, in turn, the players gain an inordinate amount of control over our emotions for all eternity (sounds like a fair deal, right?). So, even the smallest of tremors is far-reaching. An event as humongous as the departure of the only manager I’d ever known should have been warning enough, but like I said, I thought I had worked out those feelings in a healthy manner. The funny thing is that I had. Writing that piece was the most cathartic way of saying goodbye, especially when I had been afraid, for years before his actual departure, that I wouldn’t find the right words when the time came.
What I hadn’t counted on was everything to follow.
To put it in the simplest of terms, what do you do when you find yourself at the start of a new story when for 16 years you’ve been part of another, one that’s shaped you as it unfolded around you? How do you move on from your origin story, from that first sense of belonging and familiarity? I’ve written about the narrative cycles, small and large, of football and the clubs within it, but never really thought about their place in the lives of the fans. Until I teared up on New Year’s Day 2020 after Arsenal beat Manchester United 2–0 and, sitting down in the morning to write the alternative match report for Football Paradise, finally connected the dots.
My Arsenal meet-cute was in April 2003. After the World Cup reeled me in, it was the turn of the Premier League. I was watching mostly Manchester United games thanks to the friend who got me into domestic football. On April 16, United visited Highbury. The final result was 2–2 with a late red card for Sol Campbell. United came away with a three-point lead at the top of the table, though Arsenal had a game in hand; the title race was poised as finely as it could be. Back then, most of those facts meant nothing to me. What I did know, however, was that I’d found my team “suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it” to quote a book I wouldn’t read for a few more years.
Ask any Arsenal fan who grew up in the Indian subcontinent around the same time as I did who their team’s worst rival is and all will likely say Manchester United. They were at the peak of the club’s global domination, their highly successful Class of ‘92, with a stalwart trophy-winning manager in Sir Alex. There was nothing more obnoxious than a Manchester United fan, especially the smug, chest-thumping, glory-hunting kind who sneaked “Glory Glory Man United ” into every football conversation. It’s the rivalry that dominated my formative years as a football fan, and it’s no surprise now when I realise how that fixture bookends my journey so far, from April 2003 to January 2020. Back then, both teams were title-winners and contenders with managers in their prime. Now, both are struggling to establish new legacies and identities.
I was three months and three days old when Arsenal pulled off that outrageous victory at Anfield in the May of 1989 and I always like to say that me finding my team 13 years or so down the line was fated. This year marks my 16th year following this team and 17 years as a fan of the beautiful game—more than half of my life so far.
For fans of my generation, who grew up with the Invincibles, the current experience is so very different than any we’ve gone through before with Arsenal, even at the worst of Wenger’s time at the club. There is no charted path ahead, no guarantees of anything changing or getting better soon or even further down the road. In all likelihood, even if we take steps in the right direction, it’s going to be a long road back (more on Arteta later).
I’ve stepped into a phase of my life that feels both full of potential and possibility but yet equally hard, with no guidelines, or guarantees. But so far, despite the general uncertainty, the nerves, and the doubts, I’ve been able to enjoy the journey, what I’m learning, as well as what it’s teaching me about myself. When I sat down to write this, I realised that, somewhere along the way, I stopped letting an Arsenal result ruin my entire week. If you were to ask me to dig deeper, I would say that it was a coping mechanism honed over the final Wenger years that turned into something genuine as I learned to consider the bigger picture and sufficiently detach myself from my emotions without avoiding them. Yet, inexplicably, if you ask me if I care less about the club, the answer is the opposite. Learning the balance between acknowledging the often scary intensity of my feelings and stepping away so that I can otherwise function without falling apart is a skill that stems from my need as a writer to live and work with my emotions without them hindering the very thing that’d be lacking without them. That I’m actually better equipped to deal with football because of it has been a surprising revelation to me.
My favourite Merriam-Webster definition of emotion is “a state of feeling.” Sports invoke emotions, deep and at times wildly extreme emotions, which are irretrievably tangled up in our attachment, our often-times addiction. This state of feeling can be — and routinely is — a rollercoaster, and yet there we are, at the next game and the one after that and beyond, like the great Eduardo Galeano, begging for more.
But, why do we do it?
Why do we allow a sport, a team, a player to command our time, our energy, our heart, when more often than not it hurts, it disappoints, it leaves wounds that take months and years to heal and even then it leaves behind often painful scars?
“Knowledge of the heart must come from the heart—from and in its pains and longings, its emotional responses,” said Proust, warning against the futility of using any sort of scientific rationale when it comes to the workings of the heart. So I don’t feel bad about my answer to a recent question about why I continue to go to screenings, follow the games, invest time, energy, and emotion when things have been pretty bleak for Arsenal: “I love this club, they’re my club.”
Love. An overused, over-commercialised word that no one seems to be able to escape, especially not in an essay about football. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips said that all love stories are frustration stories. On a purely footballing level he might just be right. Our lives, for the most part, even for the lucky ones who get to do what they love, are made up of routine, almost mundane tasks with the good stuff sprinkled in occasionally, not to mention the times we struggle, the times that nearly break us. Why should football be any different?
It isn’t, until it is.
So much of the game, of each individual match, is often boring, even at the highest level where the playing style and execution can offer up a temporary substitute for its ultimate, most pressing aim — a goal (preferably more). And yet. Oh, yet.
Here, I must borrow from Nick Hornby who talks about the game’s capacity for unexpected delirium, and from Eduardo Galeano’s unnamed friend who calls it the game’s stubborn capacity for surprise. It’s the headiness of the emotion, proof of the human capacity to react with intense joy even when we might be otherwise hurting, and those moments, as precious as they are rare, creating a brief communal synchronicity that binds us to a specific moment, to people across oceans, and across centuries.
However, these rare moments form but a small part of what is ultimately a fan’s long-term relationship with their team (or teams). There are many more moments of pure meh, even more of heartbreak and pain, sometimes so sharp that you have to step away for a while, sometimes maybe even for months or years just to protect yourself, your sanity. So far, I’ve always found my way back and hope I always will. I even wrote my first piece for Unusual Efforts about this longest-running love story of my life. But, what I didn’t say in so many words is how it had changed, mutated, transformed even as I had. To be very honest, it wasn’t until New Year’s Day 2020 that I fully grasped how the most constant things in our lives change more than we realise, transform along with us.
Sarah Manguso, in her Ongoing: the End of a Diary, talks about marriage, but I think that it translates equally well to the situation at hand. “[Marriage] isn’t a fixed experience. It’s a continuous one. It changes form but is still always there, a rivulet under a frozen stream.” Change is the only constant, we’ve all been told.
This kind of transformation, of course, extends to the relationships in our lives, even those with our football teams, and there is always the danger of the two growing apart instead of side by side. For a large part of the past 18 months, I never realised how uneasy I was. When some of the sentiment cropped up from time to time, I chalked it up to the transition period after a 22-year constant. It wasn’t that Arsenal made me unhappy, it wasn’t that I watched fewer games, but there was something missing.
Then, on the first day of the new year, and the new decade, I watched my team not only beat Manchester United but show me everything I’d been missing for much of those 18 months. I realised that this new phase of my life as a football fan will be about relearning how to fall in love with my team and club. It’s going to be about realising that any long-term love story contains many mini-stories and many instances of learning how to love something or someone in different ways, about love changing as we grow, sometimes complementary, other times a solace, and yet another time somewhat dissonant but still a constant.
It does seem like whatever Arsenal have started with Mikel Arteta is something special that I inexplicably feel is going to end in happiness and success — even though there’s still largely a blank slate ahead, for the club, and for me, personally. However, if the game has taught me anything, it’s that there comes a time every so often when you need to take that leap of faith. Sometimes you need to keep building on everything you’ve worked for; other times a complete rehaul of everything is needed, sometimes it is necessary to break everything apart to start anew, laying the bricks of a different foundation so that a new narrative cycle can be built. It’s also taught me that there is always hope. There’s no doubt that I would rather open myself up to the full spectrum of feelings than stay away for fear of getting hurt.
Poet and philosopher David Whyte wrote
Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world: to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a future, a possibility in society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on.
The summer of 2018 was about falling in love again with football. Now, it’s Arsenal’s turn.