Monthly Archives: August 2012

My journey to Goonerdom.

When people think of India, their thoughts may often jump to cricket, and with good reason. For years, cricket here has been almost a religion and its players, the equivalent of gods. People clung to the cricket as if it were a sacred thing of great worth, and it brought communities together, as they ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed their way through a game.

But since the early 2000’s, the Gavaskars and Tendulkars have been replaced by the Messis and the Beckhams in our homes and on our streets. The grip that cricket once held on the country is loosening as football is making a niche for itself. As this new sport continues to develop itself into a major ‘brand’ in India, I see a larger number of kids playing football in alleys, in parks and in schools all over the country. It’s a phenomenon taking place across our cities and states as the youth are flocking to a new revolution – they’re changing the game.

There have been plenty clubs across Europe, from Barca to Celtic, that organise camps for promising youngsters in many of the metropolitans in India. Unfortunately, too many of these very same footballers, despite their talent, tend not to take up football seriously or professionally, as it just doesn’t pay well here. I’ve played alongside some superb players, who are forced to give up the beautiful game, to take up studies instead, which are still a priority in many Indian households.

Since going to a club’s stadium all the way from the sub-continent presents itself as a slight logistical problem, Indians all over are glued to their televisions and social networking sites as they tweet, comment and exult over match proceedings all at the same time, creating an electric atmosphere in spite of not being ‘there.’ Many a time, supporters get together, beers and pizza on hand, as they live the match on screens in front of them. I’ve been to a few match screenings myself, organised by “Bangalore Gunners”, and have watched as fans from different states and backgrounds unite as one during these thrilling 90 minutes. Of course, I hope to witness the great game firsthand as well – with a probable short trip through some parts of Europe on my agenda this October/November, I definitely have a couple Arsenal games in mind, and hopefully a North London Derby will be my first at the Grove!

Having just recently turned 18, access to all pubs and bars is now a lot easier and I look forward to these meet-ups this season. A lot of the time, I’d rather sit at home and watch Arsenal get down to business with some Chinese take-out than go out with my friends. I am a bit superstitious, and I always watch the big, big games at home with my red flag suspended over the telly!

But when I do attend these match screenings, I meet fans from every walk of life. All united by the glorious game on the screen, and for that hour and a half, an irreplaceable aura surrounded the room giving you a feeling that you belonged. Hearing everyone hold their collective breath as players like Wilshere and Arteta hovered over the ball, with the goal in sight; those are the moments you cherish and savour. A moment to forget, and I’m sure all Indian football fans will agree with me, is Blackburn’s relegation from the top-flight. Indian poultry giant, Venky’s, agreed to take over Rovers in November 2010, promising a finish in the top 5. They were linked with shock bids for Ronaldinho and Beckham, which quickly faded away, and were replaced by the uninspiring and almost unheard-of recruits in the form of Mauro Formica and Ruben Rochina. From that point, I knew it would end in tears.

It all went downhill from there, with the Rao family refusing to contribute necessary spending on bringing in fresh faces. Rovers fans were pushed further apart from the board after they refused to sack Steve Kean, who took over from Fat Sam and failed to impress. They stuck with him, but all Kean could do was watch as Blackburn, who were League champions in ’95, plummet to The Championship. It was a deal that never should’ve happened, as they never kept their promises and let down the fans in so many ways. I just hope that they somehow make it back up to the Premier League soon.

The state of both India’s economy and footballing fanbase have been the same for the past few years; growing. Consequently, as Indian spending power gradually increases, more and more fans are seen lined up in front of stores (of course, not always the ‘official’ ones) to buy the latest kits or their team’s branded goods, in an effort to take their support for their club to the next level. So just because they can’t make it to the stadium doesn’t mean they can’t contribute; and one look at the global football spectrum sees Indians making up a large percentage of each club’s world footprint. It infuriates me when I see people label overseas fans as “armchair supporters.” I hope they know that at least some of us probably know as much about and also love the club as they do, especially after seeing thousands of Arsenal fans gather to watch their favourite side during the Asia tour.

I must to admit, I have a friend who knows a guy who works at Nike in Bangkok, where most football jerseys are made, and he often gets rid of the “rejected” stock, which often have a stitching error or a slight stain, by selling it for almost 1/3rd the price. The official jerseys cost about Rs. 3,200, but I have picked up a few of these “first copies,” as we call them here, for about Rs. 1,300.

Indian supporters don’t have the luxury of coming from generations of a club’s loyal fanbase, and so need to make an important decision in their lives; which club to support. This is a decision that often separates even the closest siblings coming from the very same home. The majority of fans I’ve met, around my own age of 18, belong to the ‘big clubs’, with United winning most of them, and Chelsea claiming almost as many. Quite surprisingly, I do happen to know three Spurs fans and one City fan. The latter certainly isn’t a glory hunter as he’s backed the Sky Blues for about ten years now.

This very same lack if direct association between our country and the seat of International football however, lends a bitter taste to fans’ choices. It almost sickens me that a lot of them don’t know much about their clubs, and don’t necessarily watch most of their games, but when it’s time to lift a trophy, they’re all big fans. I’ve seen a fan from the sub-continent quickly switching loyalties when frustrated by Liverpool’s team’s lack of success, obviously eager for the triumph of Man City. He got some flak from fans all the world, including me, and the funny part was that he tried to defend his flighty decision, by saying that he’d been thinking it over for some time and was “fed up” of Liverpool.

Personally, it’s an amusing story as to how I became a Gunner. Coming from a school that only has basketball and football, I chose the latter sport for some reason and played it every break. I slowly started grew more interested in the game and so I started joining my brother, three years older than me, on the couch every Saturday and Sunday night watch 22 men knock the ball about for 90 minutes. And as all brothers do, we fought and argued about everything. He’s somehow made his way into United fandom, and so, for the sake of controversy, I decided to be a “supporter” of this club called Arsenal, who seemed to be their fiercest rivals. The fact that the club had a cannon on their crest further encouraged me to pursue my interest in the red and white army. The cannon; an instrument of battle, a symbol of strength, power has always appealed to me far more than any random fire-breathing lion or chicken on a baseball ever would. It was undoubtedly another reason for me to join the ranks of Gunner fans.

My first real memory as an Arsenal fan is that of watching Martin Keown, Ashley Cole and Lauren terrorize and torment Ruud van Nistelrooy after his dive and penalty miss at Old Trafford in 2003. For some reason, that thuggery, not only amused me, but also drew me in and I became a more frequent watcher of Arsenal games, eventually becoming a dedicated fan. At the time, I really didn’t care if we were winning or losing, I just wanted to watch The Arsenal.

I can honestly say that I don’t remember watching many games during the Invincibles era and of the FA Cup winning squad after, but from ’06, this weekend hobby evolved into an obsession. ESPN replaced Cartoon Network and my favourite t-shirt soon became that red and white Arsenal jersey (with a certain Henry on the back). Waking up for school on Wednesday or Thursday mornings ten minutes earlier than usual to check the Champions League games’ scores on the Internet became a tradition, as my parents banned me from watching the games past midnight until I was about 13. I soon caught up with our history and the games I had missed over the years through a lot of reading and watching countless youtube videos. When I think it over, Henry was undoubtedly my favourite player, and what I loved most about him was his ability to make something out of nothing. He would turn a match on its head in a blink of an eye with ease and make it look like it was all part of the plan.

One game that I’ll never forget is strangely the home win to Porto in the Champions League, back in March 2010. I had the most important chemistry exam of my life at 8 AM that morning, but I still stayed up till 2:30 AM to watch Bendtner run riot against the Portugese side. Needless to say, I didn’t fare too well in that exam, but it was worth it. (In my books, Nick went from hero to zero immediately after THAT miserable first touch late at the Camp Nou, which could’ve buried the game after van Persie was given his marching orders. Unforgivable.)

Another fond memory was when I was to stay a night at the hospital after having a bad neck injury while playing the game myself, which caused my spinal cord to shift in September 2010. I reached my hospital room after a series of scans only to find out that the TV didn’t have the channel which was showing the Arsenal vs. Standard Liege game. I asked my Mum if we could request for another room, but she shut me up with a lecture about not having my priorities set right and I was forced to ask my friend to send me updates via text, which I hate.

Over the years, there have been many low points in my journey as an Arsenal fan. One that particularly stands out was the week in February of 2011, where we went from quadruple contenders to title pretenders in just two weeks, after just one calamitous half at the SJP. I confess, in that time, I had one foot on the Arsene out bandwagon, but I realised soon that I was quick to jump to that conclusion and that there was a lot happening behind the scenes that we didn’t know about. (Sorry for that, Arsene!)

When teams lose games, the amount of banter thrown around between fans in India is pretty big as well. I play for a local club, and our captain, who is six years older than me, is a Chelsea fan. He received quite a few texts from me after our win at the Bridge last campaign, but gladly returned the favour when they won the cup double. Honestly, most of my closer friends who support other cubs don’t dare say anything to me after Arsenal losses, because they know how much the club means to me and how badly I take teasing sometimes!

Football in India is undoubtedly on the rise. It’s not going to go away any time soon. This new-found Indian pastime, and as ‘Podolski turns and shoots!’ the screaming shouts of ‘Goal!’ will only get louder as more and more Indians join in the chorus. Yes, us Arsenal fans have to look back to May 2005 for the last time they had had a celebratory, trophy-winning drink, but that will not dampen our spirits or lessen our adoration for the club. The Arsenal is here to stay.

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Pinch me.

Firstly, I’d like to say that this an overdue blog post (the last one was right after THAT statement), so and will contain my opinion on a lot of the recent Arsenal-related stuff. A friend of mine, Digant, has been helping me out with my recent blog posts, and I hope to update my blog a lot more often from now on.

Pinch me.
This has got to be a dream, a wild fantasy.

What a transfer window this has been for Arsenal fans, thus far. Towards the end of May, if someone had told me that we’d add Giroud and Cazorla to the superb signing of Podolski, I’d have asked them what they’d been smoking.

We now have the youngest European to gain 100 caps for their country, Ligue 1’s top scorer last season and La Liga’s best player outside the Barca and Madrid squads. How’s that for ambition, Robin?

It’s a very Arsene thing to do, isn’t it? We’ve just come out of one of our worst seasons defensively, conceding 49 goals in the league, and we go out and buy three attacking players! On a serious note, I really think that Arsene’s new number two, Steve Bould, will sort out our frailties at the back, although the lack of gametime together for our first choice back 5 is worrying. Szczesny has already spoken out about how Bouldie likes to bark out orders and doesn’t hesitate to stop a practice session/game to correct small mistakes about positioning, etc.

It must be added that most, almost all in fact, of the money we used for the three recruits, was from the money we earned from selling the sites on Queensland Road in London. That’s absolutely terrific. It shows that we’re a self-sustaining club, and we do not need a Sugar Daddy owner to splash out silly amounts of money to attract top talents. It also represents the first time any property sales have led directly to investment in the squad. So could it be that Arsene really didn’t have money to spend since the move to the Emirates and now that he’s been given some dough he’s made sure there’s none left for the board to put in their pockets. It’s encouraging and it remains to be seen if this was a one time change of strategy which Arsene thought necessary or a change in policy which will continue when we renew and strengthen our sponsorship deals.

Coming to the Robin van Persie situation. Lots of websites are saying that United are in “pole position” for his signature, but I really don’t think Arsene will deal with them, unless they offer about £25-30 mil. Him going to United would really twist the knife that he’s already stabbed in Arsenal’s back. If we don’t get a big enough offer, I think we should keep him for another season, even if means we lock him up in a glass cage with Frimpong and make him repeatedly read his statement out loud.

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On a different note, I’d like to address something I’ve been wanting to for a few weeks now. There has been a lot of criticism of several Arsenal players on twitter and facebook, and I want to talk about these players, in this piece, which I call “Our misunderstood men.”

1. Aaron Ramsey.
Rambo’s undoubtedly received the most amount of flak from the Arsenal faithful. He was a top prospect before that unforgettable night at The Britannia. Since he returned from that horrific injury, almost everything has gone against him, and he’s become something of a scapegoat amongst a section of the fans.

If you think about it, last season was Aaron’s first full season at the club and it obviously takes a bit of getting used to, especially if you’ve just recovered from a career-threatening lay-off. He had to restart at the bottom of the learning curve all over again and we should bear with him.

To make it worse, Gary Speed, who had mentored Aaron and made him Welsh captain, tragically passed away, it was out of the blue and one can only imagine how it affected the young lad.

Positionally, this season, Ramsey has been played out of position, especially during the second half of the season. Rosicky was brilliant all season in that CAM role and this forced the Welshman to play on the wing; a task he’s not suited for. Although he had a fantastic game against Everton where he drifted about to befuddle the Toffees to devastating effect. He could’ve scored a couple that day if he’d remained composed.

People also flash around the stats about his lack of successful passes, but when you play in an advanced midfield position, the amount will be a lot lower as you have to play riskier passes, which are often intercepted.

As a fan you never feel that Ramsey doesn’t put in less than 100% when he pulls on the red and white (and blue and black and purple for the coming season). When he was deployed as the most advanced of the midfield trio he would often pressurize the opposing goalkeepers and centre-backs ahead of RvP and was a crucial component of our pressing game.

Give him time. Look how Rosicky flourished with regular game time after such a long lay-off. I’m confident he can add a lot to our side this campaign.

2. Per Mertesacker.

The phrase “what he lacks in speed, he makes up for in positioning and experience” is often heard when people speak about Per, and I completely agree with it. Standing at 6’ 6”, he’s easily the least fastest player on our team, but remember that he has 81 German caps. He uses this top level experience to his advantage and is a superb reader of the game. In addition to his positional sense he is an excellent communicator and organiser, something we that we could sense Arsenal lacked following Gallas’ departure and when the rather timid Almunia stood between the posts. The effect of Per’s communication will be greater this season as he’s had time to work on his English and (more importantly?) French.

He joined us last year at the 11th hour and came from a different league, which is played a different pace. We can only hope his footwork has improved after doing all those Nigerian dance routines! I’m confident we’ll see the best of Merte this season.

3. Gervinho.

Our Ivorian with the gargantuan forehead got off to a decent start last year, he was bedded in better than the other signings (having been purchased during the preseason) and had good games at home to Stoke and at Stamford Bridge. His form dropped dramatically following the AFCON and found himself bellow Yossi and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the pecking order.

His main fault is his horrendous composure in front of goal. It’s no small fault but it’s a problem that can be sorted out on the training ground as he gets into good goal scoring positions. One only needs to look at the contrast between Koscielny’s first and second seasons to remain optimistic about Gervinho.
Gervinho possesses unbelievable acceleration off the mark and can skip gears dramatically whilst running with the ball and is good at taking on fullbacks. We saw glimpses of it last season and he’s used this ability to great effect in the preseason. We will see this become more effective this coming season as Arsene shifts the creative focus of the midfield back to the centre of the park (not you Ju Young) with the purchase of Cazorla. Last season we used Walcott and Gervinho to get the ball to van Persie so the wings were pressured quickly, affording Theo and Gervinho less space. This season defenses will be more preoccupied in the middle of the pitch so they may become compact as they were wont to do when we had Fabregas. This means more space for Gervinho to run rings around fullbacks.

Hopefully a Gervinho completely settled in London and in the squad gains some composure in front of goal. I feel that he (and any other signing made from a foreign league) should be given two years before a final verdict is passed on their success… And that brings me to

4. Laurent Koscielny

(disclaimer: I know he is now deservedly appreciated by Arsenal fans, so this is sort of for other fans)

Cast aside as a failure following his sending off on debut against Liverpool and then later against Newcastle at home, the Polish born defender began to win Gooner hearts with his performance at home against Barcelona (a special mention for Johan Djourou’s performance that night). No doubt his start was shaky but we all know what’s happened since.

The truth is that when he was signed Arsene didn’t plan to use him as much during the first season and would probably have handled him as he did Oxlade-Chamberlain last season. Squillaci was signed to replace Gallas and play alongside Vermaelen but injuries to Vermaelen and Djourou meant that Koscielny was thrust into the deep end and forced to play alongside Squillaci. It was a struggle for him to adapt as he’d been playing in Ligue 2 only 15 months before signing for Arsenal.

During his time at Lorient, Koscielny was used as the deeper centre-back, a sweeper of sorts to clean up after the more aggressive centre-back. The plan was to play Squillaci alongside Vermaelen in that position in the short term and to play Koscielny in that position in the long term. The aforementioned injury problems meant Koscielny had to play alongside Squillaci and take on the unfamiliar mantle of the aggressor. I noticed that Djourou and Squillaci seemed to have a better understanding that season as Djourou was trained as an aggressive centre-back and I feel it would be interesting if anyone were to dig up stats to compare Squillaci and Djourou vs Squillaci and Djourou.

Koscielny has since established himself as a bedrock and reminds us as fans to be less fickle with new signings, especially from foreign leagues.

To end this very random blog post, I hope you’ve seen this wonderful picture on Wenger’s thoughts during this RvP to United saga; pic.twitter.com/O00VtQeK

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Give us a follow on twitter. I’m @GodisDutch10 and Digant is @Digant13.

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