Thursday, October 13, 2016

The New Jersey Devils/Arsenal Connection

I'm often asked why I, as an American, support Arsenal, a soccer team that plays in Islington, a neighborhood on the north side of London in England.

When I first got interested in European soccer, I needed a team. Arsenal had one major advantage: They had, or had recently had, players whose names I recognized from recent World Cups. From France: Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Sylvain Wiltord. From the Netherlands: Dennis Bergkamp. From Germany: Jens Lehmann. From England: Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole.

But when I took a closer look at them, I noticed there were similarities to a team I already supported, the NHL's New Jersey Devils:

* Both the Devils and The Arsenal (the "The" is not official, but ingrained in the club's culture) wear red shirts with white trim.

* Both are for a neutral-zone trap that had many people calling them "boring," but was truly a misnomer, since they both also had quick-strike capability.

* Both were "United Nations" teams, not caring about a player's nationality, race, religion, or age: If they were good enough, they were old enough, and none of that other stuff mattered.

* Both had a renaissance in the mid-1990s, and stayed good through the late 2000s.

* Both had a genius general manager: The Devils had Lou Lamoriello, and The Arsenal had Arsène Wenger.

* And both were replacing what was, if not in truth then in practical fact, their original home venues. The Devils were moving out of the Continental Airlines Arena, a.k.a. the Brendan Byrne Arena, a.k.a. the Meadowlands Arena, the big drafty barn, with one inadequate level of concourse for two levels of seats, off the New Jersey Turnpike in East Rutherford, to the Prudential Center in downtown Newark.

While The Arsenal were leaving the Arsenal Stadium, a.k.a. Highbury, first used in 1913 and with end seating that was relatively new, but whose side stands had gone up in the 1930s and, while beautiful Art Deco masterpieces, limited seating capacity to a little over 38,000. They were moving 500 yards away, over a railroad line, to the Emirates Stadium, which would seat 60,000 people and be suitable for European Champions League matchdays.

I watched Arsenal play, and saw the red shirts, and saw the style of play, and said to myself, "This looks familiar. I know this team. This is my team." (It had also helped my understanding of soccer is played that I had finally begun to see it as "hockey on grass" -- not to be confused with field hockey.)
Eventually, though, other similarities kicked in. Unlike North American sports (since World War II, anyway), where the field boss is rarely also the business manager (sometimes it's tried in the NFL, but it doesn't work), soccer expects one man to do both jobs, and it is often too much for any one man, even one as savvy and as passionate as Wenger.

Because of having to pay off the construction debt for the new stadium, Wenger was forced to sell off several good players, turning Arsenal from 1 of the 2 best teams in England (along with Manchester United) into 1 of the 4 best (along with Man U, Liverpool and Chelsea -- with Liverpool since having dropped off and been replaced by Manchester City).

With the Devils, Lamoriello's hand was never financially forced until the end of the lockout in 2005, when the NHL's 1st salary cap kicked in. Before that, he seemed happy to cut good players loose because of their cost. But one big difference is that he changed head coaches as often as some of the big soccer teams do, whereas Wenger has been Arsenal's boss for 20 years now, since September 30, 1996.

Salary caps can be worked around, though. But the Devils don't seem to be willing to do that for a top scorer, especially after being burned the last time they did, with Russian diva Ilya Kovalchuk. Without a League-imposed salary cap, but with budget restrictions that finally seem to be coming to an end, Wenger seems unwilling to sign, as some fans say, "a world-class striker." Like Lou, who has finally left and been replaced by Ray Shero, Wenger is sometimes too stubborn for the team's good.

Arsenal had a Spanish midfielder named Cesc Fabregas, whom some people were calling the best young player in the world, but always got hurt. In 2011, he whined his way back to his hometown club, Barcelona. He even went on strike, lying about being injured to force a move. When he got his move, he was suddenly, magically healed. Yet many fans of the club forgave him, even now that he's gone to a team those fans despise, Chelsea. In this analogy, he's Kovalchuk and (until recently) Scott Gomez. (At least Fabregas didn't leave for money.)

At that point, Arsenal still had a Dutch forward named Robin van Persie, who looked like he was developing into that "world-class striker," despite countless injuries, through which Wenger stood by him. He wanted more money, and he wanted the team to change its philosophy to go all in, do whatever it took to win now, instead of building for the future. But while he was doing that, he went all-out in 2011-12, did his damnedest, and honored his contract. 

Only at the end of that season did he make public his demand to be sold, which he got. He's "Judas," "Robin van Rat," "the Dutch Skunk." He's despised. He's not forgiven, but Fabregas is. In this analogy, van Persie is Zach Parise (the names are even similar-sounding).

Of course, van Persie didn't have the kind of family excuse that Parise had. Nevertheless, like with Parise, I don't see too many people wanting van Persie back. (Of course, at this point, van Persie is pretty much washed-up.) In contrast, when Fabregas wasn't reacquired, there was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and cursing of the manager. Will the Devils do the same if the Devils have the chance to bring back Kovalbucks, and they don't do it?

Another connection is the songs. Soccer fans rewrite famous songs for their players, and I've done that with the Devils. To the Christmas carol, "The First Noel," they've sung, "Born is the Ki-ing of Hi-igh-bur-y!" for Charlie George in the early 1970s ("Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie... "), Liam Brady in the late 1970s ("Brady, Brady... "), and for Henry in the 2000s. With Martin Brodeur, I did, "Marty, Marty, Marty, Marty! Born is the Ki-ing of New-ew Jer-sey!" Or, once the new arena opened in 2007, "Brodeur, Brodeur, Brodeur, Brodeur! Born is the King of Pru-den-tial Cen-ter!"

Arsenal forward George became famous for his extra-time goal that won the 1971 FA Cup, just as the musical Jesus Christ Superstar was hitting the London stage, and so Arsenal fans sang, "Charlie George, superstar! How many goals have you scored so far?" So, back when I still liked Kovalchuk, I said, "Kovalchuk! Kovalchuk! He scores a goal and the Rangers suck!"

The 1958 Italian hit "Volare" has been reworked for many players. Patrick Vieira played for France, but grew up in Senegal, so... "Vieira, whoa! Vieira, whoa! He comes from Senegal! He plays for Arsenal!" With RVP, when we liked him, we referenced Arsenal's North London arch-rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, a.k.a. "Spurs": "van Persie, whoa! van Persie, whoa! He comes from Rotterdam! He hates the Tottenham!" When we had former Zenit St. Petersburg and Russia national team star Andrey Arshavin, it was, "Arshavin, whoa! Arshavin, whoa! He's from St. Petersburg! He hates the fucking Spurs!"

It doesn't always have to rhyme exactly, and profanity is actively encouraged. It doesn't work for every player, as the rhythm of the song, the player's name, and his place of origin have to fit. One Devils player it did fit for was Jay Pandolfo: "Pandolfo, whoa! Pandolfo, whoa! He comes from Boston, Mass! He'll kick the Rangers' ass!" Sadly, putting a song together doesn't work for a lot of players.

At any rate, despite all their recent troubles, I still love the Devils, and I still love The Arsenal. I have regretted watching some individual games, but I have never regretted supporting either.

Arsenal's 2016-17 season is already in full gear. The Devils' 2016-17 season begins in a few minutes. With the Yankees not having made the Playoffs, the Rutgers football team dropping weekly stink bombs, and my interests in the NFL and the NBA being at all-time lows, I am more than ready.

Let's go, Devils! Up The Arsenal! #LGD #UTA

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