It all started from here.
I didn’t quite watch Kanu lead the Dream Team to victory against Brazil in 1996. Our generator, an awful Honda my mum somehow payed a princely sum for, routinely gave up on us.
And it was ok.
It was long past my bedtime and Bebeto was giving us a torrid time. With the scores at 3-1, we–a family friend had come over to watch with us–gave up on the generator and went upstairs to lie on the bed, boiling with frustration.
And then came the shouts. Three spontaneous explosions of pure glee, the third the most protracted.
That goal–the fourth–stopped the game in its tracks. The golden goal–a nerve-jangling iteration of the sudden death rule in penalties–was abroad.
Kanu went on to Inter Milan. Not long after, we heard he couldn’t play football anymore. That he had a hole in his heart. That he would be fine with surgery. (“I don’t know how to say this but it has to be said,” the doctor must have said, with all the tentativeness of the bearer of bad news.) But. But that football had to be too much of an exertion on a faulty heart. It was common sense. (“You can still stay in football, you see, doing something less strenuous, like coaching.”)
Kanu disagreed very strongly, and his chi, slave to the dictates of the strong-willed, disagreed too. We knew next to nothing about Arsenal, but this club had sown a seed of love in our hearts. This seed would germinate in time.
In 2012, I entered Why Arsene Wenger is the Best Coach into Omojuwa.com’s Superblogger competition. O, the exuberant naivete of youth.
When you have ignored the stylistic deficiencies of that piece, its eagerness, its excess of flippancy, its many other afflictions, when you have ignored them all, it manages to illumine my Arsenalness.
The centre of my Arsenal fanhood is Arsene.
Excuse my pretensions to intellectualism, but Arsene is as comfortable expounding on the abstractions of football (without resorting to exasperating omelette analogies) as he is comfortable expounding on the abstractions of life.
Arsene is your wise uncle, that one who has a considered opinion about everything. A considered opinion delivered with a wry smile.
Arsene sees and understands things at a more systemic level, which helps, because I abhor the superficial. He may be an idealist, and like all idealists, stubborn in his pursuit of his ideals. But his ideals are beauty, good sense and the enactment of beauty. And over the years, he has blessed us with his enactments of beauty. Forget the football even, this interview is one more manifestation of a beautiful mind.
His sense of humour is spectacular. Case in point, responding “do you know someone who wakes up in the morning and says: Hey, I’d like to get fifty whiplashes” to a question on avoiding the media. His retorts are concise and wise, like proverbs. If he were on Twitter, he’d be king of the clapback.
Arsene’s intellectualism gives the Arsenal fan a certain sense of superiority. Elevates us above the fray, like a professor in a room full of small minds.
Show me the club you support, and I’ll tell you who you are.
Manchester United fans are go-getters, the life of the party, the cool guys. The guy who gets it done is probably a United fan.
Chelsea fans are colourless, the brawn to the brain, the battering ram, as listless as a piece of paper in the wind. At the party, the Chelsea fan is probably busy battling the bouncer. He is probably the boisterous dancer embarrassing himself.
Arsenal fans are dreamy, aloof, aristocratic, supremely intelligent, desperately flawed. The Arsenal fan is a keen observer. To put the party in proper context, he needs the distance to see it all, and so takes in the party from the edge.
Liverpool fans are ——————.
A Manchester City fan is a unicorn.
- “We don’t know to love without limits.”
This is Wenger’ summary of the English way of life. With it, Wenger gives me a launchpad for the exploration of the galaxy of ideas.
One of the few lines of poetry it seems I am able to remember is from e. e. cummings’ “since feeling is first.”
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you
I think Wenger might want to add that the English are famously sceptical. I am too. My essence is twice walled-off, twice gated. These complicated systems of defences allow you a certain levity about things, even things as weighty as love.
Do not despair though. When love is insistent enough, its not unheard of to break these defences down by way of a carefully directed bomb.
Later in that interview, Wenger says:
You have to find a balance between your masochistic capability to endure what you’re being put through and the pleasure of accomplishment. Today my masochistic capability must be bigger so as to express my passion. I’ve reached that point. I do many things that make me suffer.
This masochistic capability is a lover’s insurance. In love, one must be selfless. To be selfless, one must be foolish. When one is foolish, one must suffer.
In developing this masochistic capability Wenger speaks of, this magnanimity of spirit, your essence is insured, and your experiences can be deep and rich. You will understand that to be selfless, you must expect nothing back of your investments, however counterintuitive the notion. Love, true love, is not this modern charity that gives with one hand while demanding selfies with the other.
In any case, Arsenal fanhood is a necessary apprenticeship for managing disappointment.
- Dennis Bergkamp
A long ball over the top of the Argentine defence. Escorted by the tenacious Ayala, Bergkamp trails the ball as it flies through its trajectory.
In formal settings, the first thing footballers are taught with a football is to trap it. Its mastery, however, still appears a skill beyond most footballers, except you’re Bergkamp, Kluivert or Berbatov. (However the most egregious piece of ball control I’ve seen in recent times was in Giroud’s goal against West Ham in the 2014/2015 season. Oddly enough.)
Off to one side of the goal, Bergkamp’s right foot plucks the ball out of its trajectory. Ayala is surprised. He tries to adjust, but almost in the same motion, Bergkamp impossibly flicks the ball over his head and smashes the ball beyond the Argentine goalie.
In 1998, I was a young boy, and having practically recovered from the paralysing effects of damage done to my sciatic nerve by a nurse much earlier in my childhood, I was a footballer in hot demand.
I was my street’s semi-official Footballer of the Year for two years running – 1996 and 1997. My friends’ mother used to call me Eaglet–before Dream Team 1, after that triumphantly talented Super Eagles team at the 1994 World Cup, the Golden Eaglets (Nigeria’s under 17 team) had been the flavour of the 1990s. I could have had a huge career in football. I really could.
To my footballing sensibilities, Bergkamp’s goal had the trappings of godhood–only a football god can have such consistently precise command over a football. The mind conceives and the body enacts. I didn’t know who Arsenal were yet, but I would find that this god played for Arsenal, alongside Kanu, our hero.
And then I watched that goal against Newcastle.
Watching Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires (and later, the little boy who now finds himself in Fenerbahce) on the regular teach the attentive student of football vitals that are so deficient in Nigerian footballers: Technique and Intelligence.