Thursday, October 30, 2014

Arsenal's Past Has Passed

The milestones of recent weeks -- manager Arsène Wenger's 65th birthday and the 10-year anniversary of the 49-game unbeaten run, in particular -- have prompted wistful looks back at the early years of the Wenger era. That's when Arsenal led the way in the English game with an energetic, eye-catching style of play and a cast of talented, compelling characters.

The journalist Amy Lawrence has chronicled the 2003-2004 team in "Invincible: Inside Arsenal's Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season," by all accounts a story well-told. Lawrence has also appeared on several Arsenal podcasts, such as the 24 October Arsecast and The Tuesday Club Invincibles Special, to share her experiences as a fan and researcher.

Discussing her book, Lawrence has noted that the unbeaten season had to happen that year, because that season Roman Abramovich injected £100 million into Chelsea and fundamentally changed the contest.
Indeed, the point in time was crucial. Circumstances have never been and will never be the same.

We should therefore take a skeptical view of efforts at nostalgia of the unbeaten season and of the past generally. Partly because, as Tim Stillman recently put it in his Arseblog column "Seasons in the Sun," "the glorious bygone age never existed," but also because glorification of the past undermines the entertainment offered us in the present.

The attractions

Supporters will articulate their motivations in different ways, but at root aren't we all in it for the entertainment? Some mixture of the matchday experience, the feeling of common cause, the artistry of athletic feats, the drama of competition, the unpredictability of the outcome, and the reliving of youth makes professional sport entertaining for each of us. Otherwise, we'd pass our time differently.

There's certainly a contingent in it for the moaning or low-stakes gallows humor, both of which I suppose are forms of entertainment. For me, though, the point is enjoyment.

I enjoy the Arsenal on many levels:
  1. The values I share with the club, such as transparency, respect for others no matter their backgrounds, and the aesthetics of a well-run business (admittedly, these values also rely on a selective interpretation of the club's past)
  2. The performances on the pitch during the season at hand
  3. An approach to management and a style of play that put a priority on intelligence
  4. The humorous, thoughtful communication with fellow supporters
  5. The matchday experience with other supporters
  6. The attractive characters in management and in the playing squad
  7. The rich material for analysis provided by numbers 1-6 above

Almost none of the enjoyment comes from revisiting the specifics of past Arsenal performances. That's not to say I don't remember where I was or with whom or how that experience made me feel; I do. It's just that the source of my enjoyment, entertainment, and identity as an Arsenal supporter doesn't lie there.

Peoples separated by an ocean and a common language

This all might seem cold, clinical. If so, my outlook has been professionally ingrained, first as a sports journalist and then as a history doctoral student. Both professions encourage a distance from events and apply critical techniques to understand them. Neither sees its purpose as the assembly or facts, dates, or trivia, which serve for many as the stuff of history and sports fandom.

My perspective also might come across as a particularly American. Our culture doesn't tend to mine the past to identify us collectively in the present, at least not in the early 21st century. Citizens of other, older nations engage in a more active, albeit one-way, conversation with the past. David Winner's "Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football" examines how this exchange has played out in England and argues that football nostalgia and negativity are responses to the question of English identity after the end of the Empire.

I'm not placing a value judgment on this tendency. The interaction of identity and memory is complicated, and denigrating or elevating how others handle that complexity seems presumptuous. Where I do draw the line is when that process leads to exclusionary thinking, in our case seeing only "true" Arsenal fans as legitimate because they display an approved perspective on the club's past or can articulate their own experiences according to a specific script.

This framework contributes to the circular firing squad of Arsenal supporters, a distinctly destructive and unentertaining phenomenon.

This doesn't mean we should seek unanimity of perspective and opinion. The diversity of views is part of what makes following the Arsenal so attractive. What I am suggesting is that we don't venerate figures from the past or fixate on experiences, results, and emotions of seasons gone by.

The glory of now

By keeping history in its appropriate context, we should be able to appreciate the present even more. The parochial days of muddy pitches trod by Englishmen aren't coming back, and only the most reactionary among us aren't glad about that. No amount of moaning about financial obscenity, complaining about foreign influences, and marginalizing non-English supporters will stop the increasing globalization of the game.

If entertainment is the objective, we should embrace these developments. After all, money from a worldwide audience attracts the highest quality talent to the Premier League, and the ease of travel and commerce allows top players from across the world to join English sides. A league without Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero just wouldn't be as enjoyable.

That's where nostalgia ultimately leads, to a fantasy blinding us to a profoundly entertaining present.

No comments:

Post a Comment