Arsenal Football Club is literally half the reason I’m still alive. My discovery of them came at my lowest point and becoming invested in them gave me a reason to still exist. They are so much more to me than a soccer team. So, so much more.
I cannot count how many Arsenal games I’ve watched over the course of the last thirteen years, but it’s a lot. When you factor in the thirty-eight games of the Premier League season, League Cup and FA Cup runs that have gone all the way to the finals in various years, and either Champions League or Europa League football, it’s in the hundreds, possibly near a thousand. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve watched a lot of Arsenal games in the last thirteen years. But they’ve always been on television, thousands and thousands of miles away from where my beloved team is playing.
Until the night of 15 July 2019.
It was announced at the end of March that Arsenal would be coming to Denver to play a friendly against the Colorado Rapids. (Friendly is the term for a game between two teams that doesn’t count for anything. For an American sports reference, think of an all-star game. Two teams, playing a game that doesn’t affect the league table.) And my immediate thought was that my boys were going to be so close to me but I wasn’t going to be able to go. Tickets would be so expensive. There was no way that this broke girl could afford to go. So as soon as I heard about this game, I pushed it out of my mind. I’d just have to watch my boys on television like always.
On Memorial Day weekend, we celebrated my 37th birthday a few days early, and part of that was receiving some gifts. I got a joint gift from my parents, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and niece, and when I opened up the piece of paper that was with the card, I immediately started to cry. I could not believe what I was reading. It couldn’t possibly actually be happening.
Tickets. Tickets to the game.
My parents would stay at the house and watch my niece. My sister and brother-in-law would come to the game with me. They had all come together and planned all of this in order for me to fulfill a dream. I could barely speak. I could barely stop crying. I could barely believe it.
I was going to see my boys play in person.
In the days that followed, I tried to prepare myself for the game. I bought a new Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang jersey. I tried to picture what the entire night would be like in my mind. Mainly, I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t going to cry. I just absolutely was not going to cry when I saw them. But I could never quite convince myself of that so I worried that I might.
And then the night finally came. I wore my new jersey, I brought along my Arsenal hoodie because it looked like it might rain, I had both my phone and my camera, and off we went. I knew that I didn’t have a bunch of money to spend at this game, but all I wanted was one of those combo scarves they have for special games like this. Arsenal on one side; Colorado Rapids on the other. My two teams combined into one very special piece of attire.
I had never even ever seen someone else wearing an Arsenal jersey in person before and suddenly I was surrounded by them. There were Arsenal jerseys everywhere. Arsenal fans everywhere. And you could tell instantly that this was special. This was a communal experience for all the Arsenal fans who had trekked to this game, whether it was thousands of miles or just a drive from downtown. Everyone who was there wanted to be there to experience this historic game. (Well, except for my sister and brother-in-law, who were there just for me. Soccer is not one of their sports.)
Arsenal and Colorado Rapids are owned by the same man, Stan Kroneke. Kroneke is not the greatest owner in the world. To be honest, I wish both teams had a different owner. Then, maybe, they’d receive the love and care that they deserve. The morning of the game, every major Arsenal blog joined together to post an identical statement asking Kroneke to care more about the club. Invest in it, our players, and its future. Improve the atmosphere with the fans. Colorado Rapids are tied by salary caps and player restrictions. Arsenal isn’t. There is no salary cap in the English Premiership. The only player restrictions come from whether you can get your foreign players work visas. It’s literally a league of whoever spends the most usually wins, and when the league’s defending champions are owned by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, the tiny amount of money that Kroneke invests into Arsenal means that we’re only good enough for about fourth or fifth place, and as fans, that’s really hard to swallow when we know that we could be so much more. Do we need him to outspend sheikhs? No. But do we need an extra injection of cash so that we can buy a couple of players during this transfer window that will really help the team? Yes. Kroneke, however, doesn’t seem willing to do that. It often feels that Kroneke owns Arsenal just so he can say he owns a Premiership team, not because he wants to win anything. At the moment, I’d give anything for him to sell the team to someone who actually cares.
But it is that connection with Kroneke that means that this game was possible. In the thirteen years since I started supporting Arsenal, they’ve gone on preseason tours of Europe and the Far East every time. I’m used to being up at all hours watching a game from Malaysia or Singapore, or interrupting my day in the middle of the afternoon to watch a friendly from somewhere in Austria. But this year they accepted an invitation to play in a large preseason tournament that takes place here in the United States, and they chose to use the occasion to play a friendly against their sister club. That is the only reason this game happened. There is no other reason for it. Colorado Rapids is not a major MLS team that has a history of great pedigree that might attract a team like Arsenal to come play against them. They’re currently eleventh out of twelve in MLS’s Western Conference and have won only five of twenty games played this season. This was not Arsenal facing up against strong competition in their first preseason friendly. This was supposed to be a walk in the park.
And it was. The Rapids didn’t play most of their first team because they’d only had a game on Saturday, so it was a bunch of youngsters. It was a bunch of youngsters for Arsenal too, youngsters and a few players returned from loans that are in the shop window, hoping that another club will come buy them from us. This was not our starting eleven by any means. Still, the youngsters came out energized and eager to prove themselves. For some, it was their first game in the first team instead of the reserves. For others, it was their first Arsenal game period. Arsenal was 2-0 up by the 29th minute, thanks to goals from Bukayo Saka and James Olaynika, Olaynika’s goal a fantastic strike from just outside the box. After halftime, Gabriel Martinelli, a very exciting young Brazilian that I cannot wait to see more of, scored to make it 3-0. And I was satisfied. I was so, so satisfied. It was the first preseason game. We were a mile above sea level. I hadn’t come into this expecting to see the stars.
And then the 78th minute came. Arsenal made a triple substitution. Tyreece John-Jules, Eddie Nketiah, and Gabriel Martinelli off; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and Mesut Özil on. Three of the first team. Three of the big guns.
My three favorite players.
I was so excited I was literally vibrating. The entire night had gone by with me believing it was actually happening. Suddenly, I was convinced that I must be dreaming. There was no possible way that this could actually be happening to me.
Except it was. It was happening. I was watching Auba, Laca, and Mesut play live in person. And yes, it was only for twelve minutes, and yes, most of their time on was spent on the opposite end of the pitch, and yes, almost all of my pictures of them are really grainy and you can only tell it’s them because of the numbers on the back of their jerseys, but it was them. IT WAS THEM.
If there was ever a moment where I was going to cry, it was that. I refrained.
No one did anything particularly memorable, no one scored a goal. The game ended 3-0 shortly after and then it was time to go home. The Rapids players walked around applauding the crowd while Arsenal’s players stood in a circle in the middle of the pitch, and I was convinced that was it. But my sister thought that maybe Arsenal would do the same walk around the field, and I told her that they most likely wouldn’t. It’s something the home team does, I said. They’re the visitors. But right after I said we could leave, Arsenal started to walk around the pitch. Started applauding the fans. So we stayed, and Arsenal walked over to our corner, and all the Arsenal fans around me started to cheer, and most of the players clapped and kept walking, but Auba looked right at us, smiled, and waved.
NIGHT MADE. (Though, to be fair, it had already been made about seventy-five gazillion times by that point.)
So, to recap. I got to go to an Arsenal game when I’d been convinced I’d never get to see them live, they won 3-0, my three favorite players played, albeit for twelve minutes, and I feel like Auba smiled and waved directly at me. It was singlehandedly the greatest non-family-related night of my life.
Thank you so much to my parents, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and niece for giving me this amazing gift. I can never ever offer up enough thanks or be able to pay you back for making this incredible night happen. I hope that you all are prepared to hear about it for months because I’m sure that I’ll still be talking about this wonderful experience at Christmas.