First I fell in love with a football, then I fell in love with football.
The first ball my father bought me was never too far away, and the scorching Abu Dhabi heat was never a bother. Football was life, as much back then, as it is now.
Any spare time was spent kicking a football on the school playground or our neighbourhood’s dusty roads. When the final whistle called time on our day, we’d come inside and live of the scraps of football that the few channels we had access provided.
In the 1970s, that wasn’t much. My first recollection of the beautiful game on TV was the Bundesliga – home of the World Champions – delayed of course, and shown on Abu Dubai television. Oh, I could name every player, the most famous ones still etched in my memory.
The great Liverpool side of the time was the next vivid memory, the 3-1 win against Borussia Monchengladbach in the 1977 European Cup Final, my first real disappointment.
I was fascinated by the (West) German national side. I followed them through the 1978 and 1982 World Cups, fully convinced that Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and co would win, but they never did.
All everything changed when I was introduced to English club football through the weekly highlight show “Big League Soccer” – presented by the legendary Brian Moore. Though their early 1980s team managed by Terry Neill was not exactly known for swashbuckling football, it was Arsenal Football Club that I fell in love with.
Pat Jennings, Brian Talbot, Paul Mariner, Tony Woodcock and Charlie Nicholas were our heroes. There were a lot of 1-0 wins, but no trophies.
Beside that weekly dose, there wasn’t much TV coverage of the First Division. Arsenal were never champions at the time, so the European Cup, exclusive to Champions in those days kids, meant more of Bob Paisley’s marauding Liverpool. Meanwhile
Match Weekly and Shoot magazines were eagerly awaited. We couldn’t get enough of football, and I couldn’t get enough of Arsenal.
The love of football never left, but I, for a while, did.
In 1986, I moved to the US, were football, our football, was still seen as un-American as an ushanka. It was going to be tough to get my fix of Arsenal, or any action, for that matter.
The NASL had folded, MLS was not even conceived yet, and coverage of football, or soccer, was almost none-existent.
Instead, I threw mysef into American sports. I caught the indescribable Michael Jordan era in Chicago, and the lovable losers Chicago Cubs, incidentally current World Series champs, and the might Chicago Bears. American Football was king; I lived it, loved it, knew it like the back of my hand. This was my first experience of shows dedicated to sports, for hours on end. Another eye opener was the American addiction to statistics, something that good old Association Football would embrace decades later.
It took my return to Abu Dhabi and the onset of the Premier League era to rekindle my love affair with Arsenal. This was an Arsenal that, under George Graham, had started to win trophies during our trial separation.
Yet nothing prepared any of us for the Arsene Wenger era.
Ah, the 1997-98 Double; the beauty of that team’s movement; the epic battles with Manchester United; the stormy relationships between Fergie and Wenger, and Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira. Those were some days. Arsenal were simply awesome. The underdogs that went toe to toe with the greatest team of that era and came out on top very often.
I still kept an eye on Michael Jordan’s Bull, and the Bears of course, but my old love, Arsenal, were back in my life for good.
There was Tony Adams’s leadership, Ian Wright’s goals and Dennis Bergkamp’s genius. Petit dinking passes for Overmars to run on to, and very often, finish.
The great Thierry Henry, dovetailing with the majestic Pires, illuminated with Ljungberg’s hair and brilliance. Sol Campbell’s controversial arrival and Jens’s madness. And of course, the all-conquering 2004 Invincibles season.
For years I was awestruck. But as ever, football, and Arsenal, will test your resolve when you least expect it.
The subsequent years of downward slide were endured with a sense of entitlement and indignation, and ended with a fifth place finish last season, all the time with the familiar, fatherly but incredibly stubborn Wenger at the helm.
I recently took my eight-year-old son to the FA Cup final at Wembley and we both celebrated the 2-1 over Chelsea as deliriously as everyone around us.
Yet the innocence and beauty of football, forever married at the hip, had for long started to fade thanks to the injection of cash from soul-selling TV deals, sponsors and mega-rich owners.
Today, I feel the unconditional love of the game erode slowly. To my wife’s chagrin, I still watch countless hours of football a week, read many websites, and answer 10,000 questions an hour from my eight-year-old son.
He wears the latest Arsenal shirt, watches every match, and he will never experience football differently. Yet a huge part of me feels sorry that he won’t ever feel the love and innocence that I and previous generations experienced; when you would wait a week just get a few glimpses of Charlie Nicholas and mighty Gunners.