Gunners are a resilient lot; they are sitting pretty in Purgatory

Saturday June 03 2023

Arsenal's midfielder Granit Xhaka (L) joins Gabriel Jesus (C) celebrates with midfielder Leandro Trossard (R) and Arsenal's midfielder Granit Xhaka after scoring on May 28, 2023. PHOTO | GLYN KIRK | AFP






Arranged in no special order by me, these are the “usual suspects” when the term “world religion” is used, and they can encompass other groups that answer to varying characteristics of religiosity and universal belonging.

I will not delve into the complexities and controversies involved in the definitions that may come up — for instance, is Baha’i a religion, or Zoroastrianism? — but suffice it to say that the list above omits Football as practised throughout the world, except North America, where they call their variant “soccer,” and where their “football" is quite another thing altogether.


One aspect of religion is that it commands unreasoned beliefs and sanctions total submission to a mighty set of ideals with which one cannot argue, and before which one is totally without a will except through the intervention of the object of one’s idolatry.

I saw it this past weekend, when I had the rare fortune of visiting one of the most preeminent temples of this religion in a place called North London, home to the Emirates Stadium — stomping ground of Arsenal Football Club — at the tail-end of the just-ended English Premier League.

I had to remind myself that this had been the same place where the home boys had been abandoned by throngs of their supporters just two weeks earlier, when Arsenal had been clobbered 3-0 by unsung Brighton Hove-Albion in one of the most humiliating events.
It was not a defeat, rather the visiting team came but the home team did not show up. So, the visitors used the bathroom and wiped the floor clean with red-and-white rags they had found in the corridor.

Now, seeing the self-same stadium once again filled to capacity with chanting and dancing fans was surreal; they had forgotten, or forgiven, or both, and what seemed to matter now was that their team was back to winning ways, a little late in the day, it is true, but back, nevertheless.

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Five goals to the good, and the joy was pure!

Back in the mega store, crowds of shoppers were still searching for shirts, caps, scarfs and other keepsakes bearing the names of their favourite messiahs, prophets, angels and high priests.

Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, Granit Xhaka, Martin Odegaard. It is a booming business in which the offerings, alms and other eucharistic-like transactions are done so that the gods may be appeased, and the faith may prosper and generate greater happiness in the near future.

And forever, Amen!

In the halls and corridors of the Emirates, the faithful have a rare chance to learn about the history of the club — how it all started, who was most inspirational among the leaders and the players, the trophies won and what paradise may look like after passing all these years in purgatory.

The true believer will spend a number of hours going from room to room, collecting brochures and mementos and taking pictures standing by the bronze busts of the likes of Tony Adams, Thiery Henry, Denis Bergkamp and, of course, le professeur himself, Arsene Wenger.

He or she will learn that the Frenchman’s hands are all over this great stadium — in its conception and realisation — because, although he is professionally an economist, he has an idea or two about architecture and strong views about how the alignment of spaces can play on the psyche of players in a match.

As believers all over the world, and regardless of what they believe in, the Gunners are a resilient lot. They have been known to suffer year in year out but never giving up hope.

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After almost 20 years without the top league honours, this season seemed to be smiling and beckoning, and at some point, they stood eight points clear at the top.

Then the thinkable started to happen, as they lost points in matches, they should have won easily, and then Brighton came calling, showing no respect at all.

Mikel Arteta showed he had learnt at the feet of the best there is in football priesthood, but the senior Spaniard was not ready to relinquish his whole bag of tricks to his apprentice.

In an old Western movie, I watched as a young man, an up-and-coming gunslinger hones his skills and wins a few impressive battles while still in his teens. He then sets his sights on the best renowned gringo in the Sierra, who has beaten and killed each and every challenger and now reigns supreme.

The young man sets out to look for the master, who he admires, intending to learn new tricks of the trade, and the master takes him in and teaches him all he knows, until the youngster feels he knows enough, and leaves.

After a while the young man shows up again, this time to challenge his old master, and the High Noon encounter takes place in the town square in front of the Saloon. The master wins the shootout by wounding the young man but spares the life of the pretender, who rides out of town to go and prepare for a comeback.

The high priest is still in control of the Temple, until next season.