Monday, September 13, 2010

Thierry Henry Turns New York (and New Jersey) Into "Arsenal America"

Before I get to the bad series the Yankees had in Texas -- and, let's face it, any trip to Texas is going to be bad, even if you win -- I have to talk about Saturday's football activity.

As Tony Reali, host of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, would say, "And by 'football,' I mean FUTBOL!"

The Blind Pig, on 14th Street off 2nd Avenue in New York, was opened to Arsenal fans -- the cannon logo gives the team the nickname of "The Gunners," so the fans are called "Gooners" -- from all over the U.S., and a few with decidedly British accents, in the biggest event that the fan organization Arsenal America has ever staged.

Depending on whose figures you believe, it was anywhere from 300 to 400 people. I met people from all over the Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Virginia. There was a guy from Chicago, and one wearing a San Diego Padres cap. That doesn't necessarily mean he was from San Diego, but the cap was the version from the late 1980s and early 1990s, with both the S and the D being orange on a brown background, as opposed to the current version, or the more familiar one from the 1998 Pennant-winning season with the white S and the orange D on the navy blue background. You'd have to be a real Padres fan to wear that cap. (I actually have that one, but I don't wear it; it was from the days when I collected caps, including retro ones like the Philadelphia Athletics and the Whiz Kids-era Phillies.)

First, packing the place by 9:30 for a 10:00 start, thanks to the miracle of satellites and the TV broadcasts they make possible, we watched Arsenal, at home at the Emirates Stadium in the Islington section of north London, beat Bolton Wanderers, a team located in Greater Manchester.

It was a 4-1 dissection that featured goals by new Polish/French defender Laurent Koscielny in the 23rd minute, new Morroccan/French forward Maroune Chamakh in the 57th, Cameroonian midfielder Alex Song in the 77th, and Mexican forward Carlos Vela in the 82nd.

Koscielny made an awful goof in the first half that led to Bolton's only goal, to make it 1-1, but Arsenal recovered in the 2nd half to pull away. Russian midfielder Andrey Arshavin missed a number of chances, but at least he's still trying. Last season, and in the season's opening 1-1 tie at Liverpool, the man I used to call the Little Russian Beast had been rather lazy. He must have heard the fans' complaints, because, in the 3 games since, he has been running his little Russkie tush off, and the Gunners have won all 3 -- albeit all against teams that are decidedly weaker than Liverpool, who are, themselves, decidedly weaker than they are used to being. If Arshavin had just a little bit of luck, this game could have been 6-1.

While Chelsea, the west London team who is the only team currently ahead of Arsenal in the English Premier League, and won "The Double" last season (taking both the League and the in-season tournament, the Football Association Cup or "FA Cup"), also won, easily defeating east London club West Ham United, 2 other teams that Arsenal fans (and, really, all soccer fans with any taste) absolutely loathe made fools of themselves. More than usual.

Manchester United, "supported" by more people than any other in the world, and hated by even more, were ahead 3-1 over Everton in Liverpool at the end of 90 minutes. Alas, there was injury time, and this time it did not help England's luckiest team, as Everton scored twice to pull a draw from the jaws of defeat.

And Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal's north London arch-rivals, led West Bromwich Albion, a club from the Midlands that's usually too good for England's second division but not good enough for its first, before allowing a goal for a 1-1 tie. Already a good day for Gooners. Too bad West Ham was too busy blowing their bubbles.

At 2:00 in the afternoon, we walked down 14th Street from 2nd Avenue to 6th Avenue (a lot longer than it sounds) and got into the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) system that took us to Red Bull Arena.

You should have seen the looks on the faces of the people we passed on the streets and who got on the trains with us. Most, being Americans, don't know any of the European soccer teams. Many probably don't even know about the Red Bulls. And here we were, singing songs about Arsenal, various Arsenal players, and our hatred for Tottenham including manager Harry Redknapp's "twitch." Confused, and they know they were.

One person who was not confused at all, and knew damn well what we were singing about, was a young guy in a Barcelona shirt. Remembering all the nonsense about how Barca were going to bring Arsenal Captain and Barcelona native Cesc Fabregas home, but they weren't willing to meet Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's price, and with safety in numbers, I had to act. In perhaps my proudest moment as a Gooner, I pointed and started the song that got Arsenal fans from Coast to Coast singing, to the tune of "La Donna e Mobile": "We've got Cesc Fabregas!" A rather sheepish smile from the guy in the Barcelona shirt. He knew he was seriously outnumbered and just had to take it for about 30 seconds. Thirty fantastic seconds.

We got on at the 14th Street PATH station, and changed at Jersey City's Journal Square Transportation Center for the final leg of the journey to Harrison. Red Bull Arena is a 5-minute walk away.

Once at the Arena, we watched the home team beat Arsenal's U.S. partner club, the Denver-area-based Colorado Rapids, 3-0. Take a wild guess who scored the first goal: The man we Gooners all came to see, Arsenal legend turned Red Bulls symbol Thierry Henry. We went rather mental.

The other goals were by Tim Ream, a centerback who is quite the badass but had never scored as a pro before, and Dane Richards. The last Red Bulls game I saw, against the San Jose Earthquakes, Richards scored the first goal from an Henry assist, and Henry scored the second from a Richards assist.

After the game, there was a Q&A session with the man himself. The moderator asked, "Who has a question?" And somebody yelled out, "Whaddaya think of Tottenham?"

We all laughed, and so did Henry, because he got the joke. It goes like this:

Q: What do you think of Tottenham?
A: Shit!
Q: What do you think of shit?
A: Tottenham!
Q: Thank you!
A: You're weclome! (Sometimes it's, "That's all right!")
All: And... We hate Tottenham, and we hate Tottenham! We hate Tottenham, and we hate Tottenham! We hate Tottenham, and we hate Tottenham! We are the Tottenham (clap) haters!

Henry laughed, and said, "I think you already know the answer."

He was patient (not that we tried his patience), and courteous, and totally a regular guy. There was no "Don't you know who I am?" about him. Superman had turned back into Clark Kent.

Afterwards, a raffle was held, with various giveaways, including Arsenal jerseys and soccer balls signed by Henry, and a few lesser prizes. I didn't win any.

I sure felt like a winner, though, just having seen 3 really good games (first Everton-Man U and then Arsenal-Bolton on TV, and Red Bulls-Quakes live), and having heard from the greatest soccer player I've ever seen live. (I got to see Pele and Johan Cruyff in NASL games on TV as a kid, and I may also have seen George Best and even Arsenal legend Charlie George in one of those games ,but I don't remember it.) Yeah, I felt like a winner -- until I found out what the Yankees did that night.

A tremendous day all around, one that will never be forgotten by any Gooner on this side of the Atlantic.

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