By Max Daurora
There are two things every American knows about football: Brazil is really good and Pelé is the equivalent of Michael Jordan. Too few Americans are lucky enough to have their preconceived notions overcome when it comes to the world’s game. What’s seen by many Americans as a foreign, slow, and boring sport worthy of mass consumption only by 5-10 year-olds, is what the rest of the world knows as the beautiful game. It is a testament to the power of the game that it managed to hook me in at a time when I was like the majority of America: uneducated and unlucky.
My luck changed in 2005, oddly enough, thanks to Liverpool. While Liverpool is a historic rival, I will always dislike them a little less than I probably should because they helped lead me to Arsenal. It was Liverpool’s amazing run to win the 2004-2005 Champions League final that exposed me to the thrill and drama I had previously thought impossible in football.
On a normal midweek afternoon – normally the anticlimax of the weekly TV lineup – I perused the channel guide with no success. In typical male fashion, I decided it better to watch some sort of sport than nothing at all. I settled on watching a football match between Liverpool and what I now know to be Bayer Leverkusen. To my amazement, there were four goals in that game, a 3-1 thrashing for Liverpool. My preconceptions were beginning to be lifted, and after seeing Liverpool’s astonishing heroics in Istanbul, I fully understood that football is not a sport just for small American children.
With my attention no longer in doubt, football sought to pull me in for good. My family on my mum’s side has French roots. Of the little knowledge I had about football world superstars, I knew Thierry Henry was French and he was absolutely brilliant. I decided to buy FIFA 06 to get to know the teams and players better, and I started playing with Henry and Arsenal right away. His dominance in the game was so unfair that I doubted he could actually be that good in real life.
Then I saw the Arsenal on TV for the first time. Unfortunately, Arsenal’s historic Champions League victory against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu wasn’t televised. So, my first game was the quarterfinal tie against Juventus.
After fifteen minutes I was hooked. The combined flair and pace of the Arsenal attack was enthralling, every touch of the ball exquisite. Then there was Henry. His pace, electric; his vision, jaw dropping; and his grace, it was art. Watching Arsenal, especially Henry, gave me the appreciation that every touch in football can be breathtaking in its own way. You don’t need a home run or a touchdown every couple of minutes when you can appreciate the skill of a deft touch, or the brilliance of a killer ball. And so, football and Arsenal were now soundly part of my sporting universe.
My five previous seasons as an Arsenal supporter have brought me the ups and downs of beautiful football and cup final heartbreak. But, through it all, my love for this football club grew to a point that I assumed could not be surpassed. That has changed this year. I am currently living in Lille, France, studying abroad from Penn State University for six months.
Pragmatically, coming to Europe to study was a great opportunity for me to enhance my education. Realistically, it was the perfect opportunity to be fully immersed in the promise land of every American footy fan. This is no better illustrated than when entering a bar and seeing football on the television, walking by a newsstand and seeing football on the front pages, or passing by a store and seeing football apparel in the shop window.
|Max in the Club's press room
Of course, I am not in England. But Arsenal is a manageable, yet excruciatingly close, one-and-a-half hour train ride away. My main goal while in Europe is to see as many Arsenal games as possible, but with such a strong French influence at the Emirates, I thought it would be interesting to see how Arsenal is viewed in the land of wine and cheese.
You can generally gauge how popular a football club is among French youth (13-18 years-old) by comparing the club crests on the track suits that are worn so abundantly here. Naturally, you see the two biggest French clubs, Marseille and Lyon, worn rather frequently. You also see a lot of AC Milan and Real Madrid. But, among the English teams, I have been surprised to pass by more Chelsea track suits than any other. I do see the occasional Arsenal track suit, but I tend to think Chelsea is more popular at the moment among youths because our last trophy was when many of these kids were pretty young.
Conversely, you get an accurate idea of how English football is perceived among adults when entering a local pub. The best football pubs I’ve come across in Lille show Premier League matches regularly – especially Arsenal. Many of the French football fans I have met support both a Ligue 1 club and a foreign club, usually an English one.
Unsurprisingly, Ligue 1 rules the roost here especially with the local team, Lille OSC, currently mounting a serious charge for their first title in over 50 years. But, exposure to English football remains high, with frequent comparisons made between Lille’s sleek passing attack and that of Arsenal.
The French pride themselves on their ability to appreciate beauty. Whether it is their language, architecture, or their food, the French appreciate the arts of life. This is no different when it comes to football. The Premier League is admired for its relentless intensity, punishing physicality, and never-ending drama. Arsenal is seen as the Eiffel Tower of the Premier League. With its aesthetic beauty standing out among the bustle of the world in which it’s surrounded, it serves as a sanctuary from the frenetic pace of English football.
The Premier League is far and away the most popular foreign league in France. More often than not, stories relating to Arsenal take precedence over other foreign clubs in l’Équipe or on the various football shows. With England widely regarded here as having the best league in the world, the French footballing culture takes pride in having had such a strong influence on one of England’s greatest clubs.
Despite my welcomed appreciation of Arsenal by those in France, my most important footballing experience so far in Europe was when I attended my first game in February against Wolves. There are certain things every person sets out to experience at some point in their life. Sometimes, these experiences do not live up to expectations and disappoint us. Other times, our greatest ambitions reward us in the most spectacular way by delivering every emotion we had hoped to experience when dreaming of these perfect moments. My first match at the Emirates provided me with the latter. I was so overwhelmed at experiencing a dream come true that my confused facial expressions in the majority of my pictures may lead one to think something was wrong with me.
The only confusion was in how to best deal with such intense emotions of joy, satisfaction, and disbelief at the same time. A well-played match won by a clinical Robin van Persie brace was supplemented a day later with an Emirates Stadium tour that did not serve to ease my astonishment in any way.
My Arsenal adventures in Europe have only just begun with three more matches planned for the semester (including a trip to London on my birthday to see Arsenal v. Blackburn), but the experiences I’ve already had would be enough to last me a lifetime.
Max Daurora, a student at the Pennsylvania State University studying international politics, French and Spanish, has been an Arsenal supporter for six years. He is currently studying abroad in Lille, France.17 Mar 2011