Written by Phil West
A tall Hungarian man in a sombrero walks into a bar at 6:15am on a Saturday.
It sounds like the start of a surrealist joke, but it happened this past weekend, at an Irish bar named Finn McCool's, which is still standing - despite Hurricane Katrina doing its worst 12 years ago - in a mostly-residential section of New Orleans' mid-city neighborhood.
Most of the 166 official registrants for the fourth annual 'Gooner Gras' have converged on the bar before kick-off, finding seats or standing places for the cruelly scheduled early match between Arsenal and Hull.
Jill Spragio, one of the two self-christened "aunts" from the hosting fan group Krewe of Arsenal, is passing out donuts to bemused, grateful, and hungover fans. The noisy bloc of 31 San Antonio fans, the largest visiting group here, has commandeered several tables in the dimly-lit alcove with projector screens, claiming one by placing a teddy bear in a mini Arsenal jersey on it.
By the end of the game, the bear is moved by friends to the main bar area, and by the end of the weekend, the teddy bear becomes the unofficial mascot of the weekend, acquiring a cigarette and a pair of sunglasses and posed in drinking establishments all around New Orleans, starring in multiple Facebook and Instagram posts.
Fans ranging from their 20s to their 60s, hailing from cities like Raleigh, Grand Rapids, Chicago, D.C., and Boston are interspersed among the locals and the Texans - and at least two of the locals are recently arrived ex-pats back from five years in Vietnam, which is where they found Arsenal.
Most have opted for home red, though there are a smattering of away jerseys, including a vintage white pinstripe kit with “ARSHAVIN 23” across the back.
The weekend kicked off on Thursday night with an Arsenal movie screening, then kicked into a higher gear on Friday night with a party at NOLA Brewing Company that included a raffle benefiting the kids of Youth Run NOLA and, in true Mardi Gras event tradition, the crowning of a king and queen from the assembled fans.
There are two separate photoshoots so attendees can marvel at the progression of how much harder it is to find themselves in photos in the fourth year of the event compared to previous iterations. There’s a field trip on Saturday night to the bawdy, over-the-top, politician-mocking Krewe de Vieux parade, the reason that Gooner Gras is held on the first weekend of Mardi Gras each year.
This year’s group is big enough to necessitate renting a second-story deck in the heart of Frenchmen Street, and yet it won’t quite be big enough to hold all of them at once. There’s also a trip to a race track (of the horse variety) on Sunday afternoon to round out the list of weekend vices.
But the event is ultimately built around what bonds all the branches represented at the convention: a chance to watch a match on TV in a pub, with people who have this team a continent away in common, to sing the songs that have traveled from the Emirates (and in many cases, Highbury), to exult with each goal scored and to exhale and vent and curse with the invariable frustrations and perceived injustices that accompany most every soccer match.
In 2014, Arsenal came to the U.S. for the first time in 25 years for a match at Red Bull Arena against Thierry Henry’s New York Red Bulls, and the then newly-revived Arsenal America facilitated tickets and fan activities for Gooners from sea to shining sea. As I wrote in the long-sold-out Issue 6 of Howler, Arsenal America started 2014 re-engaging dormant chapters and bringing new chapters online, and by mid-year, were working directly with the club’s front office to help fans get up close and personal with Aaron Ramsey and Gunnersaurus.
Two years later, Arsenal came to San Jose and Los Angeles for a tour tied to the MLS All-Star Game, and Arsenal America again reached out to its membership to fill Avaya Stadium and StubHub Center and help Puma in its ‘16–’17 kit launch event.
What seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime event became a twice-in-three-years happening, and though there’s no official word on when Arsenal will come to the States again, many are hopeful that the enthusiasm of American fans (and other American enticements) might bring Arsenal to the States for a return trip (or trips, even) in the near future.
Gooner Gras - and other emerging, smaller regional meet-ups like it,—provides a leg of a triangle that’s essential for a growing number of Arsenal superfans. There’s the pilgrimage to see the team in London, which is expensive but essential, and the routine of watch parties, which is akin to weekly church service, to maintain faith (or at least acknowledge that there’s no escaping one’s fandom, no matter how many Christmas-t0-February collapses make that tempting).
In the years when there’s no Arsenal Stateside tour, Gooner Gras gives those fans a chance to connect and revel and take that energy back to their home venues.
Sometimes, there’s a circularity to the connections. This past October, a group of nine San Antonians from Alamo City Arsenal made a Gooner pilgrimage to London. They met Robert Nuszpl, our Hungarian from the opening paragraph, who has been living in London for more than a decade. They enticed him to come to the States for Gooner Gras, and so he has, landing in Boston in time for the Patriots to pull off a miracle Super Bowl win, staying for their parade, flying to Dallas to gather with fans there before going to San Antonio, acquiring a sombrero, and taking in all of Gooner Gras before going back to London by way of L.A.
Can one be too overboard in one’s love of a team? Gooner Gras tests those limits, as these fans spend the entire weekend cloaked in Arsenal jerseys and scarves, and even fezes. Chants break out everywhere: One fan rides a mechanical bull, is bucked off after a few unsteady seconds, and rises from the mat to lead the “What do you think of Tottenham?” call-and-response.
At the parade, one of the brass bands tailing one of the adult-content floats breaks into “Seven Nation Army,” and the Arsenal fans immediately break into their version of the global soccer anthem: an “Oh, Santi Cazorla!” chant to its tune.
But Gooner Gras also highlights the unusual friendships that come about in an American landscape that still positions soccer fans as slightly outside of the mainstream.
Mike Feinberg, a Northern Virginian who started an Arsenal podcast recently—and is still aglow from interviewing 45-year-old Sutton backup goalkeeper/everyman Wayne Shaw—spent last week’s episode picking through the wreckage that was Chelsea’s 3–1 win over Arsenal, and then broke from commiserating with his co-host to celebrate Gooner Gras and that it would bring him in real-life connection with friends who almost exclusively bond online.
He was there this weekend, reveling, singing, on the precipice of losing his voice, but gloriously alive even though his beloved team’s title chances are most certainly not.
The crazy that causes people to labor over Mardi Gras parade floats for weeks just for one hazy night of display isn’t so far from the crazy that causes Americans to wear scarves on 80-degree days chanting “Ooh to be a Gooner” in a clearly appropriated British accent.
Gooner Gras marrying those two brands of crazy is an inspired idea, which was not entirely serious as its inception, but is increasingly important for a group of American Premier League fans helping define American Premier League fandom.