Tim’s note: Today we continue part three in a four-part post from my friend Josh Glover. This is his story about how he went from rural Virginia to Japan and back, fell in love with football, and came to be an Arsenal supporter You can read part one here, part two over here and part three below. Part four will be published next week.
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.
Japanese universities have a very different schedule to those in the US, with the first semester starting in the second week in April and running to the first week in August, and the second semester starting the first week of October and ending in the first week of February (as opposed to our August-December and January-May schedule), so when my sophomore year ended in mid-May of 2000, I had an extra long summer break, since I wasn’t flying to Kanazawa until the end of September. My best friend Adam’s cool older brother Sean was working at a tech startup—in 2000, everyone was working for a tech startup, until of course everything came crashing down late that summer (anyone remember Pets.com? Worldcom?)—and convinced the founders to hire me. The company was based in Charlottesville, Virginia, which at the time was only famous for being home to the University of Virginia and a bunch of old slaveowners (some hopeless romantics called them the “Founding Fathers”), but would make the news for all the wrong reasons when some “very fine people” united the right—from incels to actual Nazis—and murdered a counter-protester.
Sean was renting an entire house on the literal wrong side of the tracks from Main Street for something like $500 a month, and he invited me to room with him. We had a great time, not only going out on my 21st birthday in late May—when I may or may not have nearly been arrested for the serious crime of smoking a joint in the vicinity of the police—but also spending a lot of time talking about and watching soccer. Most of this watching took place on TV (ESPN was showing Major League Soccer at this point), but we did go up to Washington DC at some point to watch our local team, DC United, play the Chicago Fire. We’d been watching DC United all summer, and it hadn’t been going well; in fact, DC would lose an astonishing 18 matches that season. For whatever reason, on this day, a very different DC United turned up.
There was a crowd of around 10,000 people at RFK Stadium (an American football stadium that held 56,000 people at the time) and they were noisy from the start and got even noisier as Jamie Moreno and Marco Etcheverry (nicknamed El Diablo, and my favourite MLS player at the time) ran the show, scoring 3 goals between the two of them before halftime. DC played a little bit with the handbrake on in the second half, and Chicago scored a goal sometime around the 70th minute. And then the greatest thing ever happened. Chicago made a substitution, and the big board showed some guy going off and none other than Hristo Stoichkov coming on! I had no idea that Stoichkov even played in MLS, much less for Chicago, and apparently he’d been injured for a couple of weeks, and he didn’t look fully fit when he came on.
That all changed in the 85th minute, when a Chicago midfielder played a ball over the top and Stoichkov, who’d basically been limping around for 15 minutes, turned on the jets and blasted past DC’s defenders (who had been playing a suicidally high line, sound familiar?) controlled the ball, and had only the goalkeeper to beat, 30 yards from goal. The keeper charged, cutting down the angle for the right-footed shot that he must have expected. I guess he didn’t know much about Stoichkov, who calmly took a touch with the outside of his preferred foot, the left one, then used the same foot to launch a rocket into the top corner. Before the ball had even hit the back of the net, Stoichkov was wheeling away to celebrate, unleashing a torrent of what I would learn a scant few months later was profanity. DC did manage to hold on and win the match 3-2, but I was more excited about having seen the 1994 World Cup Golden Boot winner score a goal in real life.
In addition to watching soccer with Sean, I played in a local adult league. I was deployed mostly as a right back, since our team had this British guy who was a really good goalkeeper and an Arsenal fan, as it turned out; a fact that I discovered when some of the other guys on the team referred to him affectionately as “David Semen” (yeah guys, what an original joke). I did get a run of three or four games in goal when “David” (I have no memory of what his name actually was) went back to the UK for a few weeks of holiday, and I ended up doing pretty well. My team was actually neck and neck at the top of the table with another team, whom we ended up playing in the final game of the season.
“David” (Mark? Was his name Mark?) returned a few days before the match, so our coach informed me that I would be playing right back, and that he wanted me to “get up and down the right side and whip those crosses in!” We had a classic target man centre forward, this Danish guy who was in the country on one of those working holiday visas, and he scored headers for fun. The match kicked off, and we were playing well, but so were the opposition. I did whip some crosses in, but Marten (I’m almost positive that was the Danish guy’s name) was being nullified by a beefy central defender who didn’t do much running, but did do a lot of sneaky shirt-grabbing and foot-standing. The match was still 0-0 going into the last few minutes, with the opposition starting to control the midfield more and retain possession higher up the pitch. During one of these periods of possession, their left winger suddenly made a decoy run diagonally into the box, pulling me with him and freeing up space for their striker to drop back, receive the ball, and get a shot away. The shot was hit hard, and right at my head. I was in the box, just outside the right post, so when the ball came at me, my goalkeeper instincts kicked in and I caught it.
The referee pointed to the spot and reached in his pocket. “David” was absolutely livid. “Get the fuck off the pitch, you fucking worthless Yank!” he screamed at me. I didn’t wait to see what colour the card the ref pulled out was, I just trudged over to our area on the sidelines and plopped down, head in hands. Our coach yanked me to my feet and shoved me back onto the pitch. “It’s only yellow,” he said, “now get the fuck back in there and clear your head!” I’d like to report that “David” made a brilliant save, then launched the ball up the right wing into space, where I ran onto it, nutmegged a defender, drove into the box, pulled it back to Marten so he could slot home, and was then hoisted aloft by my teammates when the ref blew his whistle seconds later, but of course what actually happened was the penalty was put away and we lost the game and I slunk off to my car and pretended to be sick when we had the end of season barbeque a couple of days later.
At the end of the summer, I flew to Japan to start “studying” at Kanazawa University, on Japan’s west coast. And by “studying”, I really mean partying in the international students’ dorm and occasionally attending classes. A few days after arriving, I was chatting to a couple of cute girls one evening in the common room, and it transpired that they were from Bulgaria! I knew nothing about Bulgaria except for Hristo Stoichkov, and I certainly let the girls know all about how amazing he was. I couldn’t remember their names at first (Delyana and Antoniya, it turned out), so I took to calling them Stoichkov One and Stoichkov Two when I saw them around campus. They were friendly and fun and always arguing with each other (or so it seemed; now I realise that’s just how Bulgarians sound when they talk to each other), and I started hanging around with them, especially Stoichkov One (Delyana), on whom I’d developed quite a crush. I guess the feeling was mutual, because we started dating at some point early in November (I remember we weren’t yet dating at the end of October, because that was her birthday, and when I rang her doorbell to deliver her birthday present—a six pack of beer and a set of Hello Kitty pencils—she was hanging out with some dude and I was mighty sad about it).
But anyway, from November onwards, we were inseparable, at least until August rolled around and it was time for me to go back to the US to start my second junior year (or first senior one, if you prefer) at William & Mary. You see, I was majoring in Computer Science, and had accumulated exactly 0 credits that I could use towards that degree during my year in Japan, so I had two years of university left. Delyana, on the other hand, only had one year left, since she was actually studying Japanese and thus had made her year abroad count. We kept in touch by email and the occasional exorbitantly expensive international phone call (Skype wouldn’t be released for two more years, people!), and in late February of 2002, I went to visit her in Sofia. I had a really great time walking around the city and taking in the sights, which were a curious mix of old Eastern bloc and trendy Western hotels and restaurants (like McDonald’s, which was both expensive and delicious in those days), and also meeting Delyana’s family. Her grandmother was quite the character; when I first met her, she gave me a huge hug, kissed both my cheeks, and then turned to Delyana and exclaimed in Bulgarian, “To think! An American foot has stepped in my apartment.”
I returned to the US after a week or so, completely in love with Sofia, but even more in love with Delyana, whose name I now remembered. Almost the second I got back to Williamsburg, I invited her to come visit me for a couple of months after her final exams in July. Since I still had a year of school left, I decided to find an apartment off campus so that Delyana could live with me for a few months without her having to hide under the bed every time the RA came around. I found a place to rent starting in May, so I moved my stuff from my dorm room and bought some dishes and a sleeping bag so that I was all ready to live on my own for the first time. Oh yeah, and I bought a TV and a VCR and a bunch of tapes (ask your parents, kids), because the 2002 World Cup was about to kick off!
The tournament was held in Korea and Japan, meaning that most of the games were in the middle of the night, except the late ones, which started at 7:30 AM my time. I set my VCR to record every single match that I couldn’t see live, and watched every minute of the tournament. It was an amazing tournament, with my man Raúl leading the perennially underperforming Spain to the quarterfinals; a young Miroslav Klose scoring 5 goals for an exciting Germany side (Klose would go on to score an astounding 15 goals over his World Cup career); the US actually advancing to the knockout round for only the second time in modern history (they would actually make it to the quarter finals, and comprehensively outplay Germany, only to be undone by a Michael Ballack goal and then robbed by the ref when he didn’t award a penalty for a Luiz Suarez-style goal line handball); Ireland qualifying from their group, thanks in no small part to a dramatic Robbie Keane equaliser in stoppage time against Germany (he wasn’t yet playing for Spurs, and I didn’t yet know that I was required to hate Spurs players); Japan cruising through their group thanks to a goal from Hidetoshi Nakata and a certain Junichi Inamoto; Turkey having a great tournament, thanks to goals from Galatasaray heroes Hasan Şaş, Bülent Korkmaz, and of course the amazing Hakan Şükür goal 11 seconds into the third place match against Korea!
That was a great summer for me. I’d wake up to watch the 7:30 AM match, work during the day as a Unix systems administrator for a biotech company (they had an arrangement with W&M where the school was paying me the $12 an hour student work rate, same as I would have made stacking books in the library), then walk across the street to Burger King where I worked the evening shift most days, come home when we closed at 10:00 PM and watch the other two matches from the day, which I had taped the previous night, since they started at 1:30 AM and 3:00 AM. I had no furniture in my apartment. I slept in a sleeping bag in the living room, and ate my breakfast sitting on the floor in front of the World Cup match, using the box my VCR came in as a table. It was heaven.
Then the World Cup ended and I had to rent some furniture, because Delyana was arriving in mid July, and my austere living quarters were not something I wanted her to experience. I got all the stuff that an adult is supposed to have in their apartment (even bedside tables!), and she must have approved, because her two month visit turned into a much longer one (19 years and counting). At this point you might be wondering what Delyana has to do with Arsenal, and whilst she doesn’t have any special connection to the club (despite the odd fancy for a handsome Frenchman like Thierry Henry or Olivier Giroud or a handsome Welshman like Aaron Ramsey), I certainly wouldn’t have become an Arsenal fan if I hadn’t met her, and gotten married to her, and moved with her to Columbus, Ohio so she could get a Master’s degree in Japanese language and pedagogy, and then gone back to Japan with her in 2005 when she was invited to a one year intensive language study programme at the Inter-University Centre in Yokohama.
We moved to Yokohama (which is basically a suburb of Tokyo, unless you’re from there, in which case let me state that it is a vibrant, wonderful city which is totally not a suburb of Tokyo!) in October of 2005, and Delyana started her programme right away, leaving me to wander around Yokohama and the greater Tokyo area, taking in the sights and ostensibly looking for a job. After 6 weeks or so of interviewing, I had three offers on the table: one from a small Japanese company, one from a big US e-commerce company which shall remain nameless, and one from a big US investment bank. The salaries were quite different as well, with the e-commerce company paying 1.5 times what the Japanese company offered, and the investment bank paying 1.5 times what the e-commerce company offered. The bank wanted me to sit on the trading floor and support some legacy C++ trading platform, plus I would need to buy some suits, so that didn’t sound all that appealing. I ended up going with the e-commerce company, luckily for my future Arsenal fandom and also for my blood pressure, because that bank was none other than Bear Stearns, which would implode spectacularly two years later during the subprime mortgage crisis.
One of my new coworkers was this British guy named Tim, and he and I got to talking about football, and I mentioned that I really enjoyed playing, so he invited me to join his club, which got together every two weeks on various five-a-side pitches around Tokyo (including on one occasion the Adidas Futsal Park in Shibuya, which is the one on top of a skyscraper that is featured in “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift”). One thing I noticed when I first turned up was that almost everyone was wearing an Arsenal jersey. I asked Tim (who was rocking a 92-93 home shirt with Ian Wright’s name on the back) what the deal was, and he said that they were an Arsenal supporters club that got together to play football as well.
This was in the early summer of 2006, so the glory of the Invincibles had faded a bit, with Rooney having dived to end the unbeaten run, Viera having left for pastures new, Highbury having hosted its last home game, and Arsenal ultimately having just finished a disappointing 4th in the Premier League, but there was also a sense of excitement in the air over the new stadium and what people were just starting to call Project Youth, with this guy named Cesc Fàbregas pulling the strings, surrounded by promising young players like Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Adabayor, Theo Walcott, Abou Diaby, and the man who would become my one of my favourite Arsenal players, The Greatest Striker That Ever Lived, Niklas Bendtner!
That summer also brought a World Cup, which I was once again in the wrong time zone for. I watched the Arsenal players with a special interest due to my connection with the supporters club, but I have to admit that the most exciting player of the tournament was definitely a short teenager from Argentina named Lionel Messi. Something about the spark and enthusiasm he played with suggested that he was a special player in the making.
Just after the World Cup started, Delyana flew back to Bulgaria for a summer holiday, but since I had limited vacation, I wouldn’t join her until two weeks later, meaning I was all by myself when the quarter finals rolled around. Since I didn’t have anything better to do, I volunteered to stay late after work one day to help my boss Mauro, who was Argentine, install some software on the warehouse systems that couldn’t happen during the workday. This was the same evening as the Argentina-Germany match, so we found a TV in the office and watched the match whilst keeping half an eye on the work we were theoretically doing. Both of us were outraged that Messi wasn’t playing from the start, and became even more outraged when Klose equalised in the 80th minute and the camera kept cutting to Messi, but then Pékerman, the Argentine coach, didn’t send him on. Germany progressed on penalties, but Mauro and I knew in our heart of hearts that if Messi had been playing, Argentina would have won easily. Luckily, my rage was short-lived, because Delyana called the next evening to tell me that she was pregnant and I was going to be a dad!
That World Cup had some other memorable moments, such as the ignominious but apt end to Zidane’s international career (in my opinion, Materazzi had that coming, and I love Zidane more not less for loafing the wanker), and one that was more memorable for me a few weeks after it happened: a 30 yard screamer from a certain Czech midfielder named Tomáš Rosický against my native United States in the group stages. I flew to Bulgaria the day after the World Cup final, so I didn’t hook up with the football club until near the end of July, when I noticed one of the guys wearing an Arsenal shirt with Rosický’s name on the back. “Wait a second,” I said in Japanese but will translate here for you gaijin, “he plays for Arsenal?” “Yes,” the guy answered (also in Japanese), “we signed him right before the World Cup started. He’s going to run our midfield for years to come!” I wish that it would have turned out that way!
Despite my frequent contact with all things Arsenal, I just didn’t watch enough Premier League or Champions League (remember that?) football to become an Arsenal fan, since the matches took place in the middle of the night for me. Of course, this was true for the World Cup as well, but I would either stay up until midnight to watch the early match and then set my alarm clock for 4 AM to catch the late match, or just stay up until 2 AM to watch the first two matches and skip the third one. Japan was just too far away from Europe to stay connected to European football without immense effort. The following spring, when our son Kai was born, Delyana and I would discover that Japan was also too far away from Europe, where her family lives, and the east coast of the US, where my family lives, so we decided to move to western Europe to be more or less halfway between our families so that they could get to see their grandson.
We moved to Dublin in the summer of 2008, having never set foot in Ireland before that. To say it was irresponsible not to have done more research would be an understatement, and to say the timing was not the best would be even more of an understatement. A few weeks before we moved, one of Delyana’s classmates from university who had a high paying job with Bear Stearns in Tokyo turned up to the office on Monday to find the doors locked and the company bankrupt. We moved to Ireland just as the global financial crisis was sinking its teeth into the flank of the Celtic Tiger. Construction projects in the city centre were just abandoned when loans dried up. People started getting laid off from their jobs. In short, it was the wrong time to move to Ireland. Not to mention the culture shock inherent in moving from one of the world’s largest cities to Dublin, which feels like a large town. We only spent two years in Dublin before moving on, but two things happened there that were vital to my Arsenal career.
The first was Premier League football being on TV! In the same time zone that I lived in! I’m one of those people that in order to enjoy watching a sport, I need to choose a team to support, otherwise it feels like there’s nothing at stake for me. There was only one choice for me: Chelsea! Haha, of course I’m kidding. Even in those days, I knew there was something distasteful about Chelsea and them buying titles left and right. My Japanese friends never would have forgiven me if I hadn’t chosen Arsenal, and I had great memories of hanging out in the Japanese House back in the day, watching Arsenal in the Champions League.
Now, when I say I “supported” Arsenal, I’m not using that in the British sense of the word, which implies undying devotion. What I mean is that when I flipped the TV on of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon (the Premier League hadn’t started play on Fridays and Mondays back then, to the best of my recollection), I looked for an Arsenal match, and I cheered for Arsenal in that match. I didn’t really know many of the players, save those names I’d seen on the back of my Japanese mates’ shirts. In fact, when one of the guys at work had a presentation and used that famous picture of Arshavin running towards the camera holding up four fingers on one of his slides, I thought he was a Liverpool player, since most of the Irish guys at work were Liverpool supporters.
I also committed the cardinal sin of not hating Spurs, and in fact not even knowing that I was required to hate Spurs. A friend of Delyana’s came to visit us at some point, and he had grown up in the UK and was a big football fan, so of course we started talking about the Premier League. I asked him which team he supported, and when he said Tottenham, I said something like, “Oh, they’re pretty cool.” He asked me who I liked, and I said Arsenal, and the look he gave me was a cross between hatred and confusion. It turns my stomach to this day when I remember once not hating Spurs!
The other important thing that happened to me in Ireland was deciding to move to Sweden and thus quitting my job. I foolishly quit my job before finding another one, and did that thing where you use all of your accumulated vacation to stop working before your official last day so I could start looking for jobs in Sweden. This was an extremely stressful time, as the millions of CVs that I sent out seemed to have no effect, but I did finally land an interview with a small Swedish startup, and they offered me a job which would start on the first of October, 2010. I signed the offer on the first of June, so I had a few months to get stuff in order before the move.
On the same day that I got the offer in my email, I also had an email from my cousin Michael, who had a bunch of frequent flyer miles that were about to expire, so he asked if he could come visit us, since he’d always enjoyed Irish traditional music and wanted to explore Dublin’s many pubs. He arrived the day before the World Cup started, and the two of us proceeded to watch the entire tournament, since he was on vacation and I was unemployed. The 2010 World Cup was in the same time zone as me for the first time in my adult life, so we could actually watch the thing as the good lord intended, sprawled on the couch with cold beers in our hands.
What a tournament it was! South Africa was a great host, and boy did I love the energy in the stadiums (I refuse to write “stadia” for the plural of “stadium”, and I will roll my eyes at you if you do it). I’ve since heard from people who were there in person that the vuvuzelas were annoying as shit, but on TV they sounded awesome! South Africa sadly failed to advance from their group, but a host of other countries that I liked did: Japan, Mexico, Spain, and the US. Unfortunately, all of these countries fell at the first hurdle in the knockout stages, save Spain, though Michael and I were happy that if the US had to go out, at least it was at the hands of the only African team to make it out of the group stages. The US-Ghana match was a really thrilling one, with Ghana going ahead five minutes into the game, then Clint Dempsey driving into the box in the 62nd minute to win a penalty, which Landon Donovan dispatched with ease. The US were on top until the final whistle, having chance after chance, but Ghana’s goalkeeper was having the match of his life (something that I’ve since experienced countless times as an Arsenal fan). Asamoah Gyan put us out of our misery (it was hooooot and the US players looked completely spent towards the end of normal time) three minutes into extra time, and the US were simply out of energy and out of ideas after that.
Ghana would of course be cheated out of the tournament in their next game by cheating cheater Luis Fucking Suárez when he intentionally handled the ball on the goal line to deny Ghana a certain winner, then when Asamoah Gyan missed the ensuing penalty, celebrated like a fucking fucker even though he had been shown a red card and should have been in the dressing room. After the match, the piece of shit had the temerity to claim that he “made the save of the tournament,” and that “The ‘Hand of God’ now belongs to me”. What a shitty shitbag! Years later, when I heard that we had just bid 40 million and 1 pound for him (by 2013, I was a die hard Arsenal supporter in the British sense of the word, so it was very much “we” at that point), my heart sank and I decided that I would rather have no striker than Luis Fucking Suárez. Of course, we did sign a “striker” that summer, one Yaya Sanogo, who would single-handedly win us the FA Cup that year.
Anyway, back to 2010 and the World Cup. I had long been a fan of Spain, probably because half of their team were Real Madrid players (I fell in love with Real Madrid when watching them in the Champions League in the late 90s, and I just can’t quit them even though I know they are bad), and they were just so good in this tournament. The Netherlands, on the other hand, had fallen quite far from the glories of total football in the 60s and 70s and had come to depend on winning through downright violence. They certainly deployed this strategy in the final, epitomised by Nigel de Jong’s “tackle” on Xabi Alonso, which somehow (Tim: not somehow, the referee was the coward Howard Webb) was only a yellow card. Carlos Puyol and Sergio Ramos gave some back, which of course was very out of character for Ramos, who is normally one of the game’s cleanest players and exudes sportsmanship, but needs must, I suppose. The match was not easy on the eyes, and still level until Cesc Fábregas was brought on in the 89th minute. The young man nearly put Spain ahead five minutes into extra time, and then would go on to win it for Spain five minutes from the end of extra time when he retrieved the ball in the box and coolly slid it to Iniesta, who couldn’t miss.
I was exuberant, not least because Fábregas had assisted the winner. You see, events had transpired the previous winter that had turned me from an Arsenal “fan” that couldn’t recognise Andrei Arshavin to an actual Arsenal fan. But that will be revealed next week in the thrilling conclusion of “Story of a mediocre fan”.