The World Cup takes me back to the time I started following football.
It was not an international side like Brazil or England but a North London team in Arsenal that won me over. International football has never really appealed to me, there’s a wayward frenzy around individual performances. Players like Messi or Ronaldo are always under the scanner to win the World Cup. The social media frenzy around them (ranking them on the basis of followers) takes the focus away from the competition, and more importantly from the game itself.
There is an unusual connection between club football and international football. Your loyalty to any international team finds its roots in the love for the player who belongs to your favourite club. I have supported France in World Cup matches because of my fondness (mildly speaking) for Thierry Henry and Arsenal. For me, this puts club football on a higher pedestal than international football. I am a Gooner first, and then a supporter of the French international team.
The swagger of Thierry Henry, brilliance of Dennis Bergkamp and the sheer grit of Patrick Veira was enough to make me a Gooner. I had found my football club, the club that I would support and stand by for the rest of my life. It was the year 2003-04, the season of 'The Invincibles'.
The Invincibles in all their glory. Image source: 101 Great Goals
It was during this time that Arsenal went unbeaten throughout. I wanted to believe that I brought them this good fortune. To be honest, in the initial years the persona of Thierry Henry was bigger than the club itself. His calm and composed demeanor in front of the goal, coupled with his electric pace and exceptional ball control skills was enough to sway me over. Jersey No 14 immediately became my favourite number. I fought for Jersey No 14 in my school football team and was asked about my fascination for the number. Didn't they get it? It was the jersey number of King Thierry Henry.
Pronunciation classes started soon after. It was Onry and not Henry. Image source: Sportskeeda
Initially supporting Arsenal was a fairytale ride. We were a force to reckon with in the Champions League and were arguably the best team in England. Arsenal football club was flying high. But all good things come to an end and so did the Arsenal era of dominance.
It started with Ashley Cole's departure. He was the player that was integral to Arsenal's style of play and his leaving was certainly heartbreaking. Then Barcelona came calling and picked the jewel of our crown - King Henry. His transfer sent shockwaves down Arsenal's support base. It was a transition period for the team. From a European powerhouse, Arsenal became a team who was now fighting to finish in the top 4 of the English Premier League.
Henry's exit left many fans like me soul searching. It was Henry's charisma that had made Arsenal appealing. We had a tough choice to make - do we follow the king that ruled our hearts or stay loyal in his kingdom? I knew hundreds of Arsenal supporters who stopped supporting Arsenal because of Henry's transfer.
I had to make the most important decision of my teenage years and I chose Arsenal. For me, the emblem on the chest is always bigger than the name on the back. This choice started shaping my personality. I started to mould my style of play in accordance to Arsenal’s style of play.
The Arsenal style of play despises showboating and encourages teamwork. They literally believe in passing the ball into the goal. Players like Christiano Ronaldo and Nani are automatically disliked by an Arsenal fan. For a Gooner, the team should dominate possession and not just a single player.
Learning and imparting the Arsenal style of play helped me acquire my coaching license in India. I wanted to make sure that the teamwork gains prominence over individual brilliance through my coaching sessions. This philosophy was obviously appreciated by my very first employers - Arsenal Soccer Schools in Mumbai. In short, my life revolved around Arsenal now.
Arsenal’s style of play is part of my DNA now
Arsenal fans belong to a different breed. We are immune to bad luck, low transfer spendings, acquiring the 4th position in the league and seeing FC Barcelona swooping down on our most iconic players. FC Barcelona's raids started with Henry then Fabregas and then Vermaelen became their most prominent targets.
Being an Arsenal fan you are supposed to digest all the dismal transfers and the petty transfer spendings. You are supposed to brag about the quality of Arsenal players rather than the results they produce. Emirates Cup and FA cup wins are the only realistic additions that could be made to your trophy cabinet. And most importantly trust in Almighty Arsene Wenger.
#MerciArsene for all the grand memories
On a good day, watching Arsenal play is like watching an orchestra. They are in sync, playing the same tune, carefully orchestrated by the master maestro - Arsene Wenger. Wenger seems to develop a telepathic connection within the Arsenal players which is surreal to watch.
For the past 22 years I have seen the master maestro take centre stage. His opera shifted from Highbury to the Emirates in North London but the music remained unchanged. Arsenal’s style of play and ethos remained identical throughout his tenure. It was Arsene’s Arsenal and none of us thought otherwise. But with him moving on, a new chapter has begun for all Gooners.
The standard Gooner expression when Champions League qualification is discussed
For starters, being a Gooner has become tougher. But I guess that's what being a true fan is. To stick with your team through thick and thin. Arsenal gives me a feeling of belonging, an identity that is second to none. A tragic loss or a grand win, a true Gooner will always stand by his team's side in the blowing wind. Remember that when you watch the match tonight.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Sheriar Irani
Photographs by Sheriar Irani