We all miss football.
It took a global health pandemic for us to realise how much it means. The Saturday afternoon. The Super Sunday. The Monday Night Football. The midweek European battle. The cup game. The always-happening everything-in-between. Because let’s be honest: it’s not just the games. It’s thinking about the games, thinking about the transfers, thinking about the tactics, even thinking about the soap opera behind-the-scenes action: so-and-so is furious with the manager, so-and-so is late for training every morning.
As though it wasn’t already obvious, this forced break has confirmed that football has never been a hobby. It’s our livelihood. Our addiction.
And we’re deprived. Nothing for a month and nothing for the foreseeable future. It’s almost too much to handle. There are tears in my eyes as I write this, in fact.
So what do you do when your addiction is deprived?
You find an alternative.
And for me, that alternative is old football footage. I’m talking classic Champions League finals, vintage World Cup goals, historic manager interviews, and top 10’s galore: top 10 team goals, top 10 last-minute winners, top 10 match-defining tackles, top 10 goalkeeping performances, top 10 times an animal has interrupted a football match, top 10 anything. But, most importantly, I’m talking anything Arsenal-related. If it’s on YouTube and it’s got an ‘Arsenal’ tag, I can guarantee I’ve seen it. Is that healthy? Possibly not, but what can I do? We all need to get our fix, and that’s how I get mine.
Which brings to me that game.
We all have it. That game we always return to. On our worst days it’s there to brighten our minds. On our best days it’s there for us to revel in past glories. It’s there to think about, inspire us, motivate us, but more specifically, it’s a match to watch during an international pandemic to remind us that life is great, that football can bring us beautiful moments to remember throughout our lives, can bring us times that will cement bonds, can bring us nights of pure elation.
For me it was a February night in 2011.
But let’s start 5 years earlier.
I was 9 years old then, at home, with my brother. My Arsenal shirt was on, my heart was racing, and my eyes were glued to the TV.
My Dad was in Paris. His eyes were glued to the pitch. He was watching Arsenal play Barcelona in the Champions League final. So was I, 200 miles away.
I won’t dwell on it too long, because we all know how it ended. We played valiantly. A performance to be proud of.
Jens Lehmann had already shown his goalkeeping prowess in the opening minutes but unfortunately also quickly showed his rash decision-making too. He was sent off in the 18th minute after bringing down Samuel Eto’o, leaving Robert Pires as the unlucky man that had to be sacrificed for Wenger to bring on Manuel Almunia.
Naturally, Barcelona gained control of the tie, but Sol Campbell brought a twist to proceedings by rising high and powering a 37th minute header past powerless Victor Valdes. A shocked Barcelona were, for a moment, stunned, as Arsenal fans owned Paris and were ready to conquer Europe. My Dad celebrated wildly. I did the same, 200 miles away.
The rest of the game played out as you would have expected. Barca, with their one-man advantage, dominated possession, forcing some wonderful stops from substitute ‘keeper Almunia. But Arsenal were dangerous on the break, too. Hleb pulled a shot wide. Ljungberg forced a fantastic save by Victor Valdes. The tie was beautifully poised and impossible to predict.
Until the 76th minute.
Writing this I felt hopeful that even now, 14 years later, it might end differently. But it doesn’t. It never does. We all know how it really ends.
4 minutes of hell. Eto’o, 76 minutes. Belletti, 80 minutes. Champions League dreams stolen. Conquerors retreating.
200 miles away, I was having my first heartbreak. Not by a romantic episode, or by a crush stolen away from me, but by football. The epitome of all heartbreaks: the crushing disappointment of Arsenal Football Club. I called my Dad in tears. He was cool, collected, calm, but, looking back, I’m now sure his heart was broken too. Almost 40 years between us, and the game still knew how to destroy us both.
I felt as though I never wanted to see the beautiful game again.
Fast forward 5 years, and I had, in fact, had a spell out of love with football. The 07/08 season had flown by without me as much as blinking an eye at any Arsenal result or any tasty piece of transfer news. But, thankfully, time heals all wounds, and by 2011, I had put that awful night in Paris behind me, and I had allowed the beauty of the game to seduce me all over again.
In February 2011, Arsenal were flying high. Battling for the title in the Premier League, preparing for a League Cup final at Wembley (I won’t mention this further), and looking confident in the FA Cup, having beaten Leeds and Huddersfield Town to reach the fifth round.
The Champions League last-16, though, was looming large.
Barcelona. Again. It’s always Barcelona.
Since the 2006 final they had gone from strength to strength. The Catalan-outfit had won La Liga two out the four successive seasons and were looking ready again to ease their way to winning the league again in 10/11.
2006 was a long time ago. This was a different team now. Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets were the greatest midfield trio of their generation. They made the game look easy. Controlled it like puppeteers without breaking a sweat. And how could they not? With Villa, Pedro, and the Lionel Messi advancing ahead of them, that trio simply had to supply the creativity and watch the deadly strike-force kill their opponents with little mercy. Guardiola, their young, exciting manager, only had to watch and enjoy.
Barca were revelling in their moment. The greatest team in the world. Easily. And however good Arsenal were playing that season, they could hardly argue that they were anything more than tremendous underdogs.
Still, I was looking forward to the match hugely. Long gone was my fear of Barcelona, born out of that 2006 final, replaced instead by an adolescent naivety that Arsenal could beat any team on the planet. We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen — right?
This time, I had the pleasure of watching with my Dad. Since he gave up his season ticket, we watched every game together, talked about Arsenal endlessly, traded tactical ideas, pondered transfer moves, slandered Sp*rs. It was our prime bond, the thing that shaped our relationship. In all moments, good or bad, we had Arsenal, we had football.
And on Wednesday 16th February 2011, we settled down to watch the greatest performance in Arsenal’s recent history.
A quick aside about our team: make no mistake, Wenger worked miracles with these boys. We had youth – Wilshere, Szczesny, Nasri – and plenty of inexperience too – Koscielny, Bendtner, Arshavin – but somehow the stoic Frenchman never made it seem that way. And as we marched out onto the Emirates turf that night, I felt brashly confident. Youth and inexperience only meant energy and motivation, and who would turn that down alongside the lethal Robin van Persie and genius Cesc Fabregas?
As the teams exit the tunnel, I remember the goosebumps. The mixture of fear and anticipation that still colours my excitement before every Arsenal game.
I watched Wenger and Guardiola embrace on the sideline. Guardiola. The most exciting manager in world football. The man who would change the game forever. The man who, on that night, I was sure was about to be taught an everlasting lesson.
The teams swap flags, the mascots walk to the sideline, the Emirates is rocking. The ball is placed on its spot, in the centre circle. David Villa and Lionel Messi kick-off. No one knew what might happen.
Predictably, the fixture got off to a nervy start. Arsenal seized the early momentum. Nasri chipped an enticing ball into the six-yard box, and Alex Song lunged towards it only to brush clean air. Fabregas clipped a beautiful through-ball over Dani Alves and Robin van Persie smashed a half-volley straight at Victor Valdes. My heart was in my mouth. The angle was against him, the shot was almost impossible, but how did he not score that?
Barcelona, however, didn’t take too long to flex their muscles. I still, to this day, have no idea how Messi failed to convert Villa’s gorgeous pass early in the first half. The Argentine raced towards young Szczesny, looked entirely in control, but diverted his subtle chip wide. I don’t think it did, but in my head the ball clips the post on its way. The dink (that never really happened) is heard by everyone in the Emirates, and by every Arsenal fan watching around the world.
I was on the floor at home. Thanking the football Gods.
Mere minutes later, though, after Eric Abidal heroically intercepted a sure Arsenal goal, I was cursing the very same Gods.
Lionel Messi picked up the ball on the half-way line, glanced past Alex Song, played through David Villa, who preceded to punch me in the gut. Hard.
Of course, Villa would score. Of course, we couldn’t let a deadly striker in on goal twice and expect them to miss again. Of course, Barca would take an away goal back to the Nou Camp.
Wenger was furious on the touchline, and, perhaps, if I was slightly older and worn down by years of following Arsenal, I would have lost all belief upon seeing the Frenchman’s pained expression.
But as it went, I didn’t. And at half-time I was more confident than ever. Somehow.
I remember posting a motivational status on Facebook, something along the lines of “C’mon Arsenal, we can do this!”, in the youthful hope that it could inspire Wenger’s team-talk and lead us to victory. It only got a few likes. Maybe a comment. And yet, to this day I like to think: ‘I did my part’.
Because, in football more than any sport, the fan really is the 12th man.
Arsenal came out in the second-half and took the initiative. Wilshere darted through Barcelona’s midfield, played a one-two with Fabregas, and volleyed harmlessly into Valdes’ grateful arms. It was a weak, nothing shot, but it was a promising move, and signified a shift of mindset. We weren’t going to go out limply. We would fight.
More and more passages were ours. Nasri played in van Persie in the six-yard box: the Dutchman could only screw his shot wide. Van Persie, this time assisted by Fabregas, then curled a tame effort from outside the box. The killer instinct was lacking but the ideas were flowing, the tie was tilting in our favour.
Messi then made a terrible decision. Through on goal. A beautiful pass from Iniesta. Square it, surely. Square it. Please don’t. For my sake. He shoots. It squirms past Szczesny. I cover my eyes. The net ripples. The Argentine had missed. Hit the side netting. And what follows is history: football poeticism in its purest form.
At 78 minutes, the match was entering its final moments. Our resurgence was, in honesty, dimming. The hope was fading.
Arshavin is on now. Our little Russian. He has the ball near the corner flag, going nowhere. You never quite knew what little Arshavin was going to do, but he certainly seemed to be going nowhere. He lays it off to Clichy, pushing high from left-back. Clichy hits a hopeful chip into the box. Van Persie runs onto it. This looks dangerous. He’s going to pass, the angle is so tight. Bendtner is bearing on goal. This is a Messi moment. Square it, please square it, I pray. That’s what he’ll do, I think. That’s what he’ll do, my Dad thinks. And, crucially, that’s what he’ll do, Valdes thinks.
No. Don’t be ridiculous. Van Persie was never going to pass. He saw what we didn’t. He saw Valdes take up the wrong position.
He winds up his left foot. He releases a killer volley. I still don’t know how, but the ball ends up squeezing in.
I lose it. We’ve done it! We’ve come back! Stolen it from Barca! Never underestimate Arsenal!
My Dad and I embrace, our well-rehearsed post-goal hug and hi-five, only this time more emotional. I feel pride. I remember my motivational Facebook post and have to fight back tears.
But could we hold on?
Ten minutes remained, and Barcelona pushed us hard. We tend to forget when thinking about this game, but they wanted that win so badly. And in all honesty, they looked like they were going to get it. They didn’t create any chances but they were camped in our half, applying pressure left, right, and centre. I held my breath.
I had no idea what was coming.
Barca looked threatening. But we wrestle the ball back deep in our own half. Bendtner has it. Does he have the composure?
Incredibly, yes he does.
A magical triangle appears. “Football is all about triangles”, my football coach used to tell me. I loathed the connection between geometry and the beautiful game, but watching that goal back, I know he would feel vindicated.
Bendtner, to Wilshere, to Fabregas. A simple triangle. That damn triangle. Fabregas swivels, plays a magnificent pass, and suddenly we’re in. I rise from the sofa, sensing a moment. Nasri is running at full pace. “How does he still have the energy?”, I think. He latches onto the pass. Holds up play gorgeously. Fakes a subtle shot. Van Persie comes in frame.
He plays a ball none of us had seen yet. He bisects two Barcelona players. Arshavin is the intended destination. The little Russian. The enigmatic Russian who you could never trust, who could be brilliant but also infuriating.
I don’t entirely remember what happened after that.
Watching it back, there was, in fact, plenty happening on the screen. Wenger was playing it cool, somehow, Arsenal fans were an assortment of limbs and tears throughout the Emirates, Guardiola looked defeated, and an unlikely duo – Arshavin and Bendtner – were stood in front of 60,000 Gooners, embracing the noise of all those screaming fans.
But I missed all of that. I was in tears. I was enjoying the greatest game of football I had ever seen and will ever see. I was in bliss.
Thank you, Arshavin. For giving me a moment I will never forget. For steering that shot coolly past a helpless Valdes. For taking revenge on Barcelona 5 years after that painful Parisian night. For beating the team of the moment and bolstering my belief that Arsenal were the greatest football side the world had ever seen.
In these times of uncertainty, it helps to remember moments like this.
I think about that game at least ten times a day, and it never fails to bring me emotion.
We all have a match that fuelled our addiction. For me, it was that February night in north London. And I haven’t stopped loving Arsenal since.