When I started writing this post earlier in the week, I was very upbeat and positive about Arsenal’s participation in the Europa League as something different, a fresh competition featuring teams we don’t usually face, the chance to be a big fish in a small pond and to actually potentially stretch a European campaign beyond February and into Spring for the first time in nearly a decade. Then I went to Arsenal’s game against Red Star Belgrade last night.
This season for the first time in twenty years Arsène Wenger’s team failed to find a way to scrape into the top four of the Premier League and secure qualification for the European gravy train that is the Champions League; and instead were consigned to participation in the Europa League, a competition that out of some kind of unfounded one-upmanship the Gooner faithful, fuelled by the club’s spin and propaganda, has somehow regarded as being a source of ridicule for those involved and a competition that is somehow beneath us.
How deluded can we be? Our involvement in the Champions League has been one of participation rather than challenge. Aside from the unlucky, but not wholly unexpected, defeat to Barcelona in the 2006 Final in Paris, the only other occasion on which a Wenger team has even threatened to win a European trophy was at the turn of the Millennium when, after being eliminated at the group stage of the Champions League, they ultimately lost on penalties to Galatasaray in the UEFA Cup Final in Copenhagen.
One of the biggest frustrations amongst the Gooner faithful in recent years has been, despite a continual stream of promises and assurances to the contrary, the club’s inability to nurture, let alone sustain, a challenge for the very top prizes. Despite delusions to the contrary, Arsenal haven’t genuinely competed in the Champions League for years, instead it has been a repetitive déjà-vu-like experience which has seen the Gunners crash out of the tournament as soon as they have played any team of note season after season.
The stagnation around the club has seen some amongst the Arsenal support; myself most definitely included, reluctantly accept our place outside of the elite both domestically and in continental competition, at least until there is a change in the ownership and management. This cathartic acceptance allows us to free ourselves from the frustration of unfulfilled expectation, and to simply enjoy watching and following the team for what it is.
Instead of seeing Europe’s secondary competition as a source of disdain and something to be endured, why not embrace it, get behind the team and see it as something different from the norm? Arsenal’s paltry historical European record of one Fairs Cup and one European Cup Winners Cup means that we are hardly in a position to pick and choose which competitions should be taken seriously and which can be written off.
When I arrived at the ground last night, there seemed to be a lack of any kind of buzz around the place, admittedly the soulless corporate bowl that is Emirates Stadium is never a fervent cauldron of anticipation; but even for League Cup games you can feel the excitement of the younger fans who don’t usually get to go the matches. The overwhelming feeling last night was one of apathy and disinterest.
As kick-off approached and I took up my seat what struck me immediately was the vast swathes of empty seats all around the place, with the obvious exception of the away section. Admittedly the visitors are now far from being the renowned name in European football they once were; and equally Wenger’s continued operation of a clear second team through the group stages have hardly helped to provide a major incentive for people to leave the comfort of their sofas and actually go to the match. Yet this calls into question what people expect from their team and their football watching experience?
More than half of the seats at Emirates are taken up by season ticket holders, seats that are already paid for and yet about half of those people couldn’t be bothered to turn out last night. Is this some form of protest? A designed ploy to show the club’s ownership how unhappy we are with the general stagnation around the club? Or is it simply a sign of apathy? My gut feel is that it was the latter, which goes on to suggest that there is a misplaced sense of entitlement amongst the modern Arsenal support, and something that is altogether more concerning.
Maybe it is because I am something of a romantic football nostalgic, fired by the excitement that I felt back in the mid-nineties during the successive runs to the European Cup Winners Cup Finals; but I want to relish this competition and still harbour hopes of an adventure right through to the final in Lyon in May. Judging by the attendance and the attitude of others last night, it seems that I am definitely in a minority.