Notes on the Psychodrama at Arsenal

Photo by D. Sanchez

This past weekend at Arsenal’s match against West Bromwich Albion, dueling banners appeared in the sky over the Hawthorns to weigh in on whether Gunners manager Arsène Wenger should renew his contract next season. “No contract #Wenger Out” read one; “In Arsene We Trust #RespectAW” said the other.

Oof. Can you imagine spending your hard-earned money on either of these things? The display was a gratuitous reminder, in this silly season at Arsenal, that the heights (depths) of sports fan lunacy are limitless. To those of us caught between love of Arsenal and love of Arsène, the past few months of watching the pro- and anti-Wenger camps duke it out on Twitter, the blogs, and at the Emirates Stadium itself, have been an embarrassed agony.

Not that I’m above it all; I’ve got my own quietly-held beliefs. But I’m less interested in whether Arsène should go (he should) than what the interim tempest feels like—and what it will feel like when he inevitably does go, be it at the end of the 2016-17 season or five seasons hence.

These days, it’s kind of like watching the world-class surgeon who saved your mother’s life but whose hands have begun to shake in his senescence. He’s won every major award in the field (except maybe one) and changed the face of medicine, but you wonder if he’s agile enough to adapt to changing times. He hasn’t really harmed anyone yet, but everyone would breathe a sigh of relief if he bowed out gracefully, before the hospital board convenes a meeting that’s bound to prove uncomfortable for all involved.

Just like the venerable surgeon with his young trainees, Wenger represents, without question, the club’s father figure, to both its players and fans. And so the psychodrama at Arsenal is at least half oedipal. (Jocasta is…Steve Bould?) The question is: Must we oust dear old Dad in order to come into our own in a changing football landscape? Or do we respect the ultimate authority of the pater familias, who, after all, has carried us through decades of relative glory?

Arsenal head since October 1996, Wenger is the longest-serving manager in the four professional divisions of English football. For many of us, he has managed Arsenal for the entirety of our support’s duration thus far. We have only ever known Arsène’s Arsenal. The deepening of his wrinkles and telltale scowl bespeaks the passage of time as surely as the revolution of the planets. Cesc Fabregas turned coat, Nick Bendtner flamed out, Nick Bendtner grew a ponytail, but there was Arsène, holding it all together by grit and gumption and tactical brilliance. Personalities shine brighter, loom bigger in international soccer than in American sports. A coach isn’t just a coach; he’s an emblem, a talisman, the embodiment of the club’s spirit. Arsène Wenger is the kind of one-man institution spoken of in the same breath as the game’s greatest players.

From the endearing verbal tics that have spawned parody Twitter accounts to the ongoing feud with his puffer jacket, Arsène has become as familiar to fans as reality TV stars, generating the same kind of false intimacy in his admirers. And just like with the celebs, there’s no point asking: Who is the “real” Arsène Wenger? The real Arsène Wenger is he of the impish smile for the cameras, who has never seen a tackle in his career, who has shut out the critics and scored his own mark into the ledger of English football. Wenger is as we think he is. Because, in truth, the intimacy isn’t false. It may not be reciprocal or based in firsthand knowledge, but it feels real, and that makes it real. If Arsène feels like our slightly distant, quizzical, often-disappointed-but-always-loving father, then by God, he is a little bit (to use an Arsène-ism) that man.

Why would anyone want to topple such an emperor of the realm? Arsène is, by the numbers, a winning coach. Who cares who manages a football team, as long as the team wins and wins and wins?

To ask the question at all is to misunderstand the nature of sports fandom. The sad little secret of sports fans is this: We don’t even really care whether our team wins or loses. We enjoy grousing almost as much as reveling—some of us more. The cardinal sin of team sport performance isn’t losing, or even playing dirty: it’s playing boring. In romance, finding your partner a little dull can augur well for the relationship; if we learn anything by our 30s, it should be that chasing the exciting one leads invariably to heartbreak and regret. But in sports, we’d rather suffer than stagnate. We’d rather rend our garments over a spectacular home loss than muddle through months of 1-1 draws and the occasional scraped-out victory.

The tears of sports fans are real, but (arguably) unlike the lover’s, they are volitional. We are explicitly in it for the drama. And every drama needs conflict to compel the reader—not just any conflict, but the right one, the one that keeps us up at night wondering what will happen. Arsène may win, but not all winning makes for good drama. Winning the FA Cup two years in a row still doesn’t deliver quite the same rush as winning the League. Landing three-fourths up the table doesn’t soothe the wound of bottling virtually every league game against a “big club.” Qualifying for the Champions League and then crashing out of the knockout stage six years in a row does not a page-turner make. The chant “Boring, boring Arsenal” that fans once affectionately appropriated has, in recent years, taken on a nasty undertone.

So how do we the fans navigate our disappointment? Is disloyalty to Arsène disloyalty to Arsenal? Does it matter? What is the virtue of sports loyalty, anyway? There is none, in an objective moral framework. After all, no one gets hurt if a basketball diehard alters her sympathies from the Spurs to the Lakers. She isn’t “cheating” on anyone, even though that parlance has crossed over into sports language. Team loyalty is only virtuous in the Aristotelian sense, a trait to be aspired to on its own merit, because loyal is the kind of person we’d like to think of ourselves as: because fealty over time, whether to a person or a set of ideals, no matter how arbitrarily chosen, has to mean something. And it does. Attachments acquire depth and substance over time; they become characters in the stories of our lives. They dog-ear our chapters. Aaron Ramsey’s horrific leg break at the hands of Ryan Shawcross came in the middle of the first big move of my adulthood. Andrey Arshavin’s game-tying four at Anfield temporarily soothed the pain of a bad breakup. I have measured my life in away goals.

So we are loyal. But what does it mean to love a thing that can’t love you back, because it is a thing? Your college, your home state, your workplace: none of these care about you in earnest. To love a fraternity or a sports franchise is, therefore, the ultimate romance. You give and give to the object of love—and let’s be clear, what you’re giving is money—because participating in its grand narrative allows you to access a sublime that cannot be conceived by one man alone.

If it could be, Arsène Wenger would be that man. But even despite Wenger’s titanic stature, is one man ever bigger than a club, especially a club like Arsenal, which boasts almost a century and a half of history? Is it possible to maintain loyalty to Arsène and Arsenal both? Arsène has seemed to suggest of late that he wishes to remain at Arsenal into next season. But the cries of “Wenger out” grow louder by the week, even among those who love him most. How do you lovingly force a man out of his job, even if you think it will be better for him too? Is there ever a way to coerce someone into his best interest?

By in large, these questions are moot for us measly fans, who have little to no say in the matter. As flies to wanton boys are we to Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov. But it’s worth remembering that a football club, or any team, is not some vague spiritual entity driven under its own force, but rather, like a country, a collection of people working hard to sustain its good fortune. Some of these people become so bound up in the identity of the thing they love that the thing itself is permanently changed. Its fabric is sewn with the fibers of their labor. No man is bigger than the club, but the club must honor the men who have made it. We must find the sporting equivalent of the death-with-dignity movement. Because it is a kind of death. Make no mistake, when Arsène leaves, even if he manages another team, we will all of us Gooners grieve him: those who clamored for him to go, and those who know he should go but still halfway wish he would stay forever, a starry, gray-haired presence, reminding us of those early days of our love affair with Arsenal, when the club first burrowed its way under our skin.

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Jennifer R. Bernstein is a Seattle-based writer and co-founder of The New Inquiry. She has written essays and criticism for LitHub, Brooklyn Magazine, The Hairpin, The Stranger, and elsewhere. She lives on Twitter @jenniferrenu.