Story of a mediocre fan: chapter 2

Tim’s note: Today we have a special treat; part two in a three-part post from my friend Josh Glover. You can read part one here.

Josh describes himself as “Arsenal fan in Sweden, lover of all things Rosicky, known to scare dogs when Arsenal score.” You can follow Josh on Twitter and read how his summer of intentional practice is going over on his blog. For now, enjoy his next installment.

In 1997, I was a fresh high school grad with big dreams and empty pockets. I needed to save up some money to pay for university, which meant I needed a job that paid more than the minimum wage jobs I’d been working up until then (in addition to lifeguarding, I worked at Burger King). Luckily for me, there was this slightly older guy on my church softball team who was working as a programmer for a computer services company who hooked me up with a job as a PC repair technician. The company’s office was in Harrisonburg, which was about a 30 minute drive up Interstate 81 from where I was living at the time. Harrisonburg was also where my grandmother lived, which meant I could have lunch with her occasionally or stop off after a hot day at work and have a quick dip in the swimming pool at her apartment complex before driving home in my 1980 Camaro with no air conditioning.

After a few weeks, I realised that I was wasting time and petrol driving back and forth between my house in Staunton and my job in Harrisonburg, so I asked my grandmother if I could move in with her. She was only too delighted to accept, so I filled my Camaro with boxes of clothes and books and my computer and my soccer ball and drove down to Harrisonburg to start the next chapter in my life.

I finished work at 5:00, and Grandmother liked to eat at 5:30, meaning that there was still plenty of the long summer evening left after supper. She lived right next to one of the city’s big parks, and I got in the habit of grabbing my soccer ball and heading down to the park after supper. I’d practise dribbling and juggling and shooting for an hour or so. Sometimes when I was down at the park, there would be a group of 10 to 15 men playing soccer in the big grassy field where I practised. These guys looked organised, in the sense that they had discernable formations in their 5- or 7-a-side games and seemed to know where their teammates would be when they passed the ball. Some of them were really good, as well! They could do tricks with the ball and body feints and smack the ball between the tee shirts that served as goals from ridiculously far out, and they seemed to be having a lot of fun, laughing and yelling at each other in Spanish every time there was a goal or a hard tackle or a delicious bit of flair on the ball.

I started sitting down to watch them play after I finished my own training, and it was almost as exciting as the World Cup—and certainly a lot higher scoring. The fact that I couldn’t understand anything they were saying beyond “aquí” and “gol!” made it even more exciting, because soccer was meant to have an international flavour, and I still associated it most strongly with the Spanish-speaking parts of the Americas.

A couple of weeks in, the guys were already playing when I got to the park, and when they saw me walking up with my ball under my arm, one of them motioned me over. It turned out that they only had 13 players, so they needed one more for their 7-a-side game. One of the guys spoke enough English to establish that I would play with them, and that I was on the “skins” side (which is definitely the side you want to be on in the sweltering Virginia summers). I pulled my shirt off and ran over to my team, where the guys tried to establish where I would play, a task made harder by the fact that none of them spoke any English (the English-speaking guy was on the “shirts” team) and I certainly didn’t speak any Spanish. Finally someone pointed to the back, I walked over there, and then my team kicked off.

I don’t remember much about that game other than how terrible I was compared to these guys. Getting repeatedly nutmegged by my uncle Chris when I would play with him and my cousins did not prepare me to defend against these moves. At some point, I learned that I needed to keep my feet close together and kind of shuffle around, trying to stay between whichever attacker was currently humiliating me and the goal. When we had the ball, my fellow defender would yell and point to where I should move, and my teammates occasionally passed it to me, and I even more occasionally managed to pass it back to a teammate, though more often my pass would be cut out by one of the opposition players.

When the match was over, the guy who spoke some English came over and thanked me for making up the numbers. He said they were playing Saturday morning and I should come. I agreed, thinking he was inviting me to watch the game. I showed up Saturday, and there was an actual soccer field marked off with cones, with two full size goals at either end. The guys were warming up, so I ran over to say “hola” before going over to the side of the field to sit down with some women and children who were hanging around. The English speaking guy ran over, and it turned out that he hadn’t invited me to watch after all, he wanted me to play. I was surprised, given the paucity of my performance when I had played with them the other day, but certainly excited. He pulled a bright green shirt with the number 1 on the back out of his bag and tossed it to me, then told me to go in goal.

A few of my teammates came over to take some shots. It turned out that a childhood spent playing American football had prepared me well for this position. I could catch even really hard shots hit near me, and I had good instincts for where the ball was going, so I could dive across the goal to get a hand to shots in the corners. I saw some surprised looks on my teammates’ faces as they realised that the gringo was good for something after all.

We were playing against another team of Spanish-speaking guys, but they had different accents than my teammates. At some point, one of my teammates got taken out by a rough tackle and said “pinche Dominicano” when he got up, leading me to surmise that our opponents were from the Dominican Republic, a fact that was confirmed after the match. My team, it turned out, was from Mexico, and all of the guys worked at the nearby poultry plant. So did the Dominicans, who had gone from fierce opponents to friendly, back-slapping amigos as soon as the final whistle blew.

I don’t remember what the score was, or even if we won, but I do remember making a few good saves, and remember how awesome it felt when the futbol gods on my team yelled and gave me high fives when I denied a sure goal. My audition had been successful enough to warrant a callback, and they made sure I knew that I was expected at training on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and that there was a game next weekend.

I spent the summer playing with these guys, even managing to pick up some Spanish along the way. Of course, it was not the kind of Spanish that was very useful outside of a footballing context; in fact, a lot of it was the kind of Spanish that would get you punched in the mouth if you used it anywhere but on the football pitch. In addition to some Spanish, I also managed to pick up a red card, when a forward on the opposing team who had spent the game swearing at me every time I saved one of his shots finally scored on me. I was on the ground, having dived to try and keep the ball out, and he came and stood over me, laughing in my face and telling me what he planned to do with my mother after the match (my comprehension was good enough at that point to follow the general thrust of what he was saying, if not all the nuances of the romantic theatrics he was describing). I stood up abruptly and “accidentally” head-butted him in the face, which came as quite a surprise to him and was quite amusing to my teammates. They were less amused when the ref came over, red card held high, and one of them had to go in goal.

The summer eventually came to an end, and with it the recreational league. My team kept training until late September, then the weather got too cold for their liking, so they packed it up until next spring. I continued training by myself for another few weeks, then hung up my boots (which were actually softball cleats) for the year. This was good timing, because the early decision deadline for college applications was sometime in October, and I needed some time to prepare my application for William and Mary. My plan was to apply only to W&M for early decision, and then if I didn’t get in, apply to safety schools like the University of Virginia and James Madison University during the normal application period in January. The decision from W&M came back towards the end of November, on a particularly memorable day for me, albeit one that has nothing to do with Arsenal, so I won’t expand on it here (check my blog tomorrow if you want to hear it), and it was a yes!

I worked through the winter, squirrelling away money for that looming tuition bill, which was making me sweat, until I had a stroke of luck. My grandmother was divorced, but on good terms with her ex-husband, who had remarried and lived nearby. Grandpop (the practical joker from my tennis story) invited me to have supper over at his place every Tuesday. He had just gotten a computer, and asked me to help him figure out this, that, and the other. In exchange, he taught me about mutual funds, and offered to match every dollar I invested, as long as I promised to use the money to pay for school. Because of his incredibly generous gift (he did this same thing for all of his 12 grandchildren), I was able to pay for most of my university education, and emerged from uni with “only” $15K in student loans.

The spring and summer before uni, I went back to the park and hooked up with the Mexican guys again and played a lot of futbol. In training, we mostly played 7-a-side, so I was able to practise passing and receiving the ball, dribbling, and even “defending” (my version is basically making a nuisance of myself to the attacker but never attempting a tackle, since I suck at tackling) in addition to the work between the posts I was putting in during matches.

That summer also brought the 1998 World Cup, which strangely enough didn’t make as strong an impression on me as the previous two. I suspect it had something to do with being excited about going off to university soon, but it was probably also due the fact that I was actually playing the game, so watching it on TV had lost some of its exotic appeal. Plus Cameroon, Bulgaria, and the US all crashed out in the group stages, and Roger Milla had retired. I do remember France winning, but not much else. Strangely enough, I would only grow to love many of the players on that France team after they had traded in their Arsenal shirts, and I would actually hate Thierry Henry before I fell in love with him, but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

I headed off to Williamsburg that August, not knowing that my footballing education was about to get intense. The guy who lived next door to me in my freshman dorm was this international student from Turkey nicknamed Ayna (as he would tell me shortly), and he was absolutely obsessed with football. I met him for the first time when I was walking by his room and heard a scream of “Batistutaaaaaaa!” coming through the open doorway. I looked in, and saw this guy wearing a red and yellow football shirt (I’d soon learn it was the 98-99 Galatasaray home shirt) doing a squatting double fisted celebration (you know, the one that Lacazette would sometimes do back when he used to score goals) in front of his computer. I couldn’t help laughing, but luckily he could see that it was more of an astonished laugh than a condescending one, so he invited me in and finished his match (a Serie A clash between Fiorentina and AC Milan), then taught me how to play FIFA 98. This was the first soccer video game I’d played since Ryan’s and my Nintendo World Cup adventures in 1990, and wow had the graphics gotten better!

Ayna and I became fast friends almost immediately, and in addition to playing an irresponsible amount of FIFA together, we also played an irresponsible amount of actual football together. Our dorm was a five minute walk from the field where the varsity soccer team played, so we went down every day after dinner—when the field was unused but the lights were on—and passed the ball around and took shots. We occasionally convinced some of the other guys from our hall to come down and kick around, but none of them were dedicated enough for our taste. This was about to change in a major way, thanks to a Japanese culture night.

OK, I better explain. William & Mary required you to take four semesters of a foreign language, regardless of what your degree was. Each year of foreign language that you had taken previously would count as a semester towards this requirement. I had taken three years of French, but had started in 7th grade and stopped after 9th, so I hadn’t done French in four years. I knew I couldn’t handle French 202, so I decided I’d start a new foreign language from scratch. Of the languages that W&M offered, I was interested in Japanese, Chinese, and Russian. I picked Japanese because I thought it would be the easiest (having studied the other two since, I can tell you that is very much not the case), despite knowing nothing about Japan other than Mr. Miyagi was from there and they were apparently going to buy all of the US, at least according to Michael Crighton’s super racist novel, “Rising Sun”.

I absolutely loved Japanese. It wasn’t very hard at first, since we started out only learning one of the three different sets of characters used in Japanese (hiragana, for those of you following along at home), and the cultural stuff that we learned alongside the language was absolutely fascinating. A few weeks in, the Japanese Language House, which was a dorm for intermediate to advanced students of Japanese (second year and on) and international students from Japan, hosted a culture night where they had food and Japanese conversation. Our class was invited, and we were assigned to introduce ourselves to people in Japanese, following the pattern, “Hi. I’m $NAME from $PLACE. My hobby is $THING. Nice to meet you.” (“Hajimemashite, Guraba Joshu desu. Sutanton kara kimashita. Shumi wa sakka desu. Dozo yoroshiku.”)

It was that Tuesday night in late September that I met two Japanese guys named Haruka and Tai, whose levels of soccer obsession rivalled even Ayna’s. Haruka was a Manchester United fan (which I didn’t yet know made him a bad person) and Tai was actually on the varsity soccer team! I introduced myself to them in my basic Japanese, and as soon as I mentioned that my hobby was soccer (it’s called sakka in Japanese, so I’m going to keep referring to it as “soccer” in this context, ‘k?), they exchanged a look, pulled me aside where my Japanese teacher couldn’t hear that we were speaking English (forbidden in the Japanese House, at least on Japanese culture nights) and started peppering me with questions about which teams I liked and what I thought of David Beckham (David who?) and so on. Haruka invited me over the next afternoon to watch something called the Champions League.

You see, we got cable TV free in our dorms, and our cable package included ESPN, which had started carrying the Champions League around this time. Matches kicking off at 21:00 in Europe would start at 16:00 our time, which was usually after our last class of the day (from my second year onwards, I made sure I didn’t have a late class on Wednesdays), and ESPN would show what they considered the most exciting match of the day live. That most exciting match often featured Spanish clubs like Real Madrid or Barcelona, or Italian ones like Juventus or Internazionale, or English ones like Manchester United or Arsenal. The commentators really hyped up Arsenal in the buildup, since they were coming off a really successful domestic season in 97-98, winning both the Premier League and the FA Cup, and also because this young French manager named Arsène Wenger had Arsenal playing really exciting football. Of course, that Champions League campaign didn’t end up going well for Arsenal, with hated rival Manchester United winning the cup, but Arsenal were really fun to watch!

Another team that was fun to watch and often featured by ESPN was Real Madrid. This was just before the official galáctico era kicked off with Florentino Pérez being elected to the presidency of the club in 2000, but they still had quite an arsenal (sorry) of stars in their lineup: Roberto Carlos, Raúl, Davor Šuker (whom I remembered as the Golden Boot winner from the 98 World Cup), Seedorf, Morientes, Samuel Eto’o, wow! Due to the impression Real made on me in the CL, I still have a soft spot in my heart for them, even though I know that makes me a bad person. If it helps, I am wracked with guilt every time they win the CL and I’m happy about it.

Time marched inexorably on, as it is wont to do, and autumn turned to winter turned to spring, and all of a sudden my first year of university was over. I returned home to Harrisonburg, ready to play some summer league futbol with my amigos Méxicanos! I couldn’t wait to show off the bright green Lotto boots that I had bought, and the new skills I had developed thanks to the tutelage of Haruka, Tai, and Ayna. However, the guys didn’t show up to the park. Instead, there was another group of guys that I hadn’t met before. I walked over, ball in hand, and introduced myself. Sure enough, they were a summer league team, but unlike most of the teams I remembered, they were decidedly not from the Americas; in fact, they were from Iraqi Kurdistan. As with many summer league teams, no one particularly wanted to play goal, so they welcomed me onto the team as their goalkeeper. I had a lot of fun playing with them, and learned about five Kurdish words (one of them meant “fast”) which I have long since forgotten.

The highlight of the summer of ‘99, however, was the Women’s World Cup. A huge amount of credit goes to the Women’s Sports Foundation and the U.S. Soccer Federation for an amazing media campaign leading up to the tournament which built up a wave of excitement. It turned out the US Women’s National Team was really really good, y’all, and was captained by arguably the best woman footballer in the world, a certain Mia Hamm. The media narrative was that the tournament would be a showdown between the twin superpowers of women’s football, the US and China, and so it came to pass. The US marched through their group, winning all three games and scoring 13 goals (two by Mia Hamm!) whilst only allowing one. China made short work of their group, though they scored “only” 12 goals and let in two. Sadly for me, Japan was eliminated, managing only a single goal (which was good enough for a 1-1 draw with Canada). Happily for me, Japanese women’s football would grow into a powerhouse by 2010—but more on that later.

Germany gave the US a real scare in the quarter-finals, but the US managed to overcome them, and then brushed Brazil aside to make it to the final against none other than China, who had steamrolled Russia and Norway, scoring seven goals and allowing none in the process. The final was an absolutely epic affair, played in front of 90,000 rabid fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, which had also hosted the final of the 1994 men’s World Cup. The game was a defensive masterclass from both teams, ending 0-0 after a last ditch block from US midfielder Kristine Lilly and a great save from the US keeper late in extra time. Wouldn’t you know it, the same penalty spot where Baggio wept would decide the game!

This time, the iconic moment on the penalty spot was a joyful one, as Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty, ripped off her shirt, and dropped to her knees with fists raised before being engulfed by her teammates. It was a magic moment, and one that caused lots of consternation amongst Fox News pundits because how dare a woman remove her shirt in public even though her sports bra was much less revealing than your average beach volleyball player’s uniform and Nike clapped back by hiring Chastain to do several commercials for their sports bras.

It was the ‘99 Women’s World Cup that absolutely cemented my love of watching football, though at this point, I definitely preferred international football to club football. This would remain the case until about 2008, but I’m getting way ahead of myself.

August came too soon, and back to Williamsburg I went to start my sophomore year at W&M. I hooked up with Ayna, Haruka, and Tai and got back into the swing of things. Through the Japanese guys, I learned about Hidetoshi Nakata, who would go on to become my absolute favourite player who never wore an Arsenal shirt. I bought my first football shirt, a 1999 Japan home kit, and got Nakata’s name on the back. I still have that shirt, which makes it my second oldest piece of clothing (behind a New York Ska Jazz Ensemble shirt that I got sometime around 1997). In addition to studying Japanese football, I was getting really serious about studying Japanese language. So serious, in fact, that I decided I wanted to go for the Japanese Ministry of Education scholarship to study abroad in Japan for my junior year. I spent as much time studying kanji and vocabulary as I did playing football and FIFA, and it paid off, as I was offered a scholarship to study at Kanazawa University for the 2000-2001 school year!

Had I not gone to Japan that year, my life would be very different now, and it’s unlikely that I would have become an Arsenal fan. This may sound hard to believe, but it will all make sense in the thrilling conclusion of my story. See you next week.

12 comments

    1. Wait, are you sure you’re not a slightly older version of me somehow? Or I guess that would more correctly mean that I’m a slightly younger version of you. 😉

      1. Only in origin I’m guessing. Got my masters degree in English at W&M in 93. Still pretty darn cool albeit unlikely.

        The time you describe here is around when I became an Arsenal fan. I’ve spanned the range from distant follower, to rabid fan, to mediocre fan.

        1. I got a Computer Science degree, but had a minor in English. That English minor has actually been more valuable to me in my career as a software engineer than the CS stuff. 😉

  1. Really great stuff Josh. Can’t wait for the part 3.

    Tim from yesterdays post. In retrospect you are right that Emery probably should have been fired at the end of year one and the results in year 2 proved that. I did not believe he should have been fired in the summer but by November it was clear even to me that he had lost the dressing room and the team was in free fall and a change was needed.

    When the same squad quits on 2 senior managers in a row who have both been managing players for >15 years then its reasonable to believe a significant part of problem may be with the squad. Its possible that squad had become very difficult to manage. Does anyone really believe that same squad was going to rededicate itself in the short or long term and get behind someone who had never managed before when it was pretty clear the teams ceiling was in a big fight just to climb back to the Europa spot? I think Arteta/Edu decided major changes were needed or the most likely outcome would be that group of players probably would have quit on Arteta also. They were in the dressing room and on the training pitch and they were certainly in a much better position then any of us to see what was happening and make those sort of decisions.

    1. I’m not interested in rehashing this conversation anymore. We all seem to agree on some things and disagree on others. Just let it go.

  2. I copied and pasted a portion of the interview on Arsenal.com from 3 days ago.

    So is this investment in youth set to continue to be a major part of the club’s plans?

    “One hundred per cent,” Edu confirmed. “That has to be Arsenal.

    “We have to go into the market for exciting players with the right age, right attitude and right mentality. We want to see a club like Arsenal with a young squad, an exciting squad with a big, big future because as I said last summer, the idea is to have a young squad. We want to give them the opportunity to play together for two, three, four, five or six seasons.

    It certainly sounds like everything they have been and are doing is part of a long term plan. Edu also makes a big point of finding players with the right attitude and mentality which suggests to me he wants to avoid a recurrence of attitude problems he may have faced when he took over.

    1. Wasn’t it Arsene who once said that the three things he looked for in new players was “Technique, technique and technique”?

      I disagree though. I think what’s between the ears is the most important part about a footballer. Glad to see that receive its proper emphasis.

        1. HA!

          He had another quote I love about the requirements for a top professional: talent, attitude, opportunity. Talent, he said was something that a player was both born with and which is usually developed before they are 12. Attitude is like what we saw with Bergkamp, where the player continually wants to improve, learn, lead his team, and step up to the daily challenge of being a professional athlete. Opportunity was something he saw as his responsibility as a manager, something he could give to people. And I think he had a subtext about giving opportunities to African players and guys he saw as traditionally discriminated against (he specifically mentions that there are no black African Formula One drivers).

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