BY RASHEED CLARKE /@RasheedClarke
As a Canadian, I’ve come to accept that hockey coverage will inevitably dominate the local sports media. As an Arsenal FC supporter, that makes life frustrating. Canadian newspapers publish footie scores in tiny print on the back pages of their sports sections, and television networks rarely broadcast Arsenal matches.
Luckily for me, the 2006 Champion’s League Final carried enough cachet to warrant a televised broadcast. Plus, with the four-hour time difference between Europe and North America, the Canadian sports broadcaster TSN (The Sports Network) could show the Final in the afternoon without sacrificing evening timeslots reserved for obligatory hockey coverage.
That rare treat of watching Arsenal on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 17th, 2006, in the Champion’s League Final no less, remains one of my most vivid Arsenal memories.
~ ~ ~
I work as a traffic reporter for a radio station in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Inside News 95.7’s traffic centre, I fix my eyes on my computer screen, studying the online articles previewing the UEFA Champion’s League Final. Between the web pages, I monitor the region’s traffic cameras and announce updates for Halifax’s motorists:
“Well just a minor bunch up on the inbound 102 heading onto Bayers Road, just normal there. So far we’re trouble free on both the inbound 111 and 118. On the MacKay and MacDonald Bridges, moderate volume heading into Halifax, but still pretty light if you’re heading into Dartmouth.”
Traffic in the city flows smoothly on most days, which makes for blissful motorists and bored traffic reporters. Throughout my 5 a.m. – noon shift, I browse from one football website to another, reviewing the paths that Arsenal and Barcelona each took to reach the Final of Europe’s most illustrious club competition. I announce my last report of the day at 12:01 p.m. I scramble to gather my keys and fling my black messenger bag over my shoulder.
“Have a good day guys,” I shout to Natalie, Doug, Erica, Ruth and Alison – my co-workers in the newsroom. I don’t linger to see how or if they respond, I just bolt to the station’s parking lot and jump into my car for the five-minute drive home. I make it home in three.
I tune the TV to TSN and watch the Arsenal and Barcelona players walk out of their dressing rooms and down a long tunnel that leads them onto the pitch of Stade de France in Paris. Barcelona’s players wear blue and red striped shirts with red shorts and blue socks. The Gunners wear their change strip – yellow shirts with dark grey shorts and socks. The television camera scans the faces of Arsenal’s starting eleven. I smash my sweaty hands together in applause.
The Champion’s League anthem plays as I gaze at the three Arsenal jerseys I hung on the living room wall when I moved in. They make wonderful décor in my otherwise sparse one-bedroom apartment. Besides, who on Earth would confine such chic apparel to a closet? The navy blue 2002-03 away shirt hangs on the far right. The maroon 2005-06 home shirt hangs on the far left, its gold printing commemorating Arsenal’s final season at Highbury shines in the afternoon sun. In the middle hangs my first Arsenal top – the red and white 1994-96 home shirt. My father bought it for me on a trip to London to visit my aunt, uncle and two cousins when I was nine years old. From the moment I put on that shirt and received disgusted looks from my cousins – both Manchester United supporters – Arsenal was the club for me.
My monotonous job demands 3:30 a.m. wake up alarms, I don’t have a girlfriend, and my immediate family lives 785 miles away in Toronto. But I have Arsenal – the refreshing antidote to my life’s dreariness. I kiss my hand and touch the Arsenal crest stitched on the 94-96 home shirt.
I plant my bare feet on the hardwood floor in front of the television and stand cross-armed – my usual position when watching important Arsenal matches. The referee blows his whistle. Arsenal takes to the attack. An early cross from right back Emmanuel Eboué finds Thierry Henry near the penalty spot. Henry takes the pass down with his right foot then pokes a shot on goal only to have Victor Valdés turn the ball away for a corner. I send a loud, angry moan out the screen door.
Eighteen minutes in, Ronaldinho slips a pass through the Arsenal defense and sends Samuel Eto’o in alone on goal. Jens Lehmann rushes forward from his net and slides towards Eto’o’s feet at the edge of the penalty area. Eto’o crashes to the turf, the ball bounces out right towards Ludovic Giuly, and he tucks it into the net. The referee pulls the play back, races over to Lehmann, reaches into his back pocket and flashes a red card before Jens.
“Get the fuck out! No way that’s a red!” I scream at the TV.
I sigh then whisper, “Damn it.”
I cover my mouth with both hands and watch Mad Jens walk off the pitch, to a pat on the back from Arsène Wenger on the touchline before disappearing into the tunnel. I remember Lehmann’s outstanding play in the matches leading up to the Final. He kept clean sheets in Arsenal’s previous six matches and stopped a Juan Riquelme penalty in the dying minutes of the semi-final second leg against Villareal to clinch Arsenal’s spot in the Final.
Robert Pires comes off and is replaced by Manuel Almunia, who takes his place between the posts. Nothing comes from Barcelona’s free kick on the edge of the area. Down to ten men, Arsenal press on.
I glance through my screen door and watch two of my neighbours walk into the parking lot and settle into their car. I wonder what the hell they could possibly find more important than watching the Champion’s League Final.
Thirty-five minutes in, Arsenal win a free kick on the flank just outside the penalty area to Valdés’ left. Henry places the ball on a spot of lush green grass and takes three steps backwards. With a swing of his right foot, he lofts the ball into the box where Sol Campbell’s smooth head meets it, powers it towards the back post and into the Barcelona net.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I jump around the living room. “Fuckin’ right Sol! Yes!”
My eyes well up and I collapse to my knees an arm’s length from the TV. Campbell runs to the sidelines, leaps and punches the air. Arsenal’s supporters at the Stade de France erupt in a mass of yellow jubilation. The Gunners make it to halftime a goal to the good and I sit down on the edge of the sofa.
As the highlights from the first half flicker on the screen I think back to last season’s Champion’s League Final between Liverpool and AC Milan. I watched the game in a pub in downtown Toronto where drunken Reds fans bumped into each other and splashed beer all over the place. I hated the crowds, I hated the noise, I hated the fact that Liverpool won. I love watching Arsenal’s matches alone so I can be as emphatic and undistracted and obscene as I want.
The second half begins and I spring up from the sofa and assume my stance. The ecstasy of Campbell’s goal gives way to a sense of worry as Barcelona buzz in front of Arsenal’s net. They string passes together and pepper Almunia. The minutes tick away and I regain my voice.
“That’s it Ashley, great tackle.”
“Oh fuck off ref that’s not a free kick!”
“Away! Away! That’s it Kolo!”
“What a fucking dive!”
Fourteen minutes from full time, we’re still up 1-0. So close. So close to our first ever Champion’s League title. So close to sending a gloating email to my cousins in London. So close to creating a memory that I can happily relive with any Arsenal fan I meet.
“Hold on guys, just fourteen more minutes,” I whisper.
Barcelona build again from the back. Barcelona’s substitute Andrés Iniesta plays a pass along the deck into Arsenal’s penalty area. Another Barca sub, Henrik Larsson, steers it with his right boot toward Eto’o. Eto’o looks a shade offside, but the linesman’s flag stays down. Eto’o takes a touch to get it on his right and sneaks his shot past Almunia inside the near post.
“Fuck!” My fist swings in front of the TV. The momentum of my flailing arm spins my whole body around. The Barcelona fans at the Stade de France bounce up and down, waving red and blue flags.
Eightieth minute. Barcelona’s third substitute, Juliano Belletti, slides a pass into the box for Larsson. Larsson takes the ball out wide and Belletti continues his run into the Arsenal penalty area. Larsson plays it in to Belletti who takes the pass to the near side of the six-yard box and strikes a shot on goal. The shot hits the inside of Almunia’s right calf and bounces into the Arsenal net.
“Nooooo. Nooo. Damn it!” I collapse into a squat and pound the hardwood floor with both palms. Barcelona’s players pile on top of Belletti. The match commentator announces that Belletti just scored his first ever goal in European football, his first ever goal for Barcelona.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
I stand again, cross-armed. My legs jiggle while the remaining ten minutes wind down. Cheering on the exhausted Arsenal ten, I hope for a bit of luck – a hoofed Arsenal clearance that bounces over Valdés and into his net, a Barcelona own goal, a streaker who distracts the Barcelona players just long enough for Freddie Ljungberg to run forward and score for the Gunners.
The final whistle sounds.
Barcelona 2, Arsenal 1.
I tug at my curly black hair and pace around the living room. The TV camera scans the faces of the Gunners. We look at each other with blank stares and damp eyes.
I applaud the Gunners as they receive their runners-up medals, then I look on in silence at a blurry image of Barcelona captain Carles Puyol lifting the gleaming silver Champion’s League trophy above his head, beneath a shower of red and blue confetti. I predict a sleepless night ahead.
My alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. as it does every weekday. I feel groggy. I have a headache, a dry mouth and a sore throat. I pluck the 94-96 red and white Arsenal shirt off the living room wall and wear it to work. It fits perfectly.
“Well a pretty light drive so far this morning on the major routes. The 101, 102, and 111 are all in great shape, and we’re still moving along with light volume on both the MacKay and MacDonald Bridges into Halifax and Dartmouth.”
I wonder why the referee didn’t just allow play to continue after Lehmann’s tackle on Eto’o. Barcelona would have scored, but Arsenal may have still had eleven players. I wonder what the game would have been like if Pires didn’t have to be sacrificed as Almunia’s entry fee. I wonder what would have happened if we had eleven players for the full ninety minutes. I wonder if Lehmann would have stopped those shots from Eto’o and Belletti.
“Just normal volume this morning on the inbound 102, no trouble spots to get in the way. Not too bad on the inbound 111, it’s moving pretty well from Portland Street over to the MacKay Bridge, and both harbor bridges are now filling in a bit heading into Halifax.”
I wonder why Eto’o wasn’t called offside before he scored the equalizer. I wonder if Belletti will score a goal from such a tight angle ever again. I wonder what Arsenal’s chances are like for next season.
~ ~ ~
For me, the inherent value in Arsenal lies not in pretty football or cabinets full of trophies – although those things are important too. It lies in the team’s ability to bring out raw expressions of joy, anger and pride, unrestrained by the part of us that doesn’t want to make a scene.
If I earn a job promotion and scream, “Yes!” as loud as humanly possible, I might seem over-competitive. If I watch a man litter and yell, “Pick it up, jackass!” I might risk a punch in the throat. If I earn a bonus at work and tape the paycheque to my shirt for everyone to see, I might look conceited or simply insane. But as an Arsenal supporter, I can let out the emotions I would otherwise contain. I can shout with delight for every goal scored, swear contemptuously at each one conceded, and wear my Arsenal shirt anywhere to let the world know what club I support with pride. Not arrogance, just pride.