football

Thoughts on the beautiful game.

Arsene Wenger deep in thought

For the last several years, like many Arsenal fans, I have become numb to the achievements of the club. An FA Cup win here, a win over Spurs there, but for the vast majority of the time, what's happened on the pitch has meant little to me. I, also like many Arsenal fans, have been calling for Arsene to go, and now that he has, we have to recognise the things in the accomplished in the first part of his reign.

From the moment I got interested in football during the 2002 World Cup as a six year old, Arsenal was my team and Thierry Henry was my favourite player. I possibly wasn't quite aware at the time just exactly what Arsenal was accomplishing, exemplified by the Invincibles season, a feat that even this season's Manchester City team has been unable to repeat. Vieira scoring the winning penalty in the 2005 FA Cup final, with Manchester United having dominated the whole game, felt like the heist of the century. The 2006 Champions League run was at the same time the most exciting and heartbreaking moment I can remember. Then we moved to the Emirates.

Although nobody knew it then, the first competitive match at the Emirates, a 1-1 draw against Aston Villa, rather set the tone for the subsequent 12 years. This, taken from the BBC match report, sums it up:

Arsenal were their usual blend of touch and movement, dominating possession and creating a host of chances, but they lacked sharpness in front of goal.

Lacking sharpness. On the transfer market. On the pitch. In the boardroom. It's been years of bleak football, with some real highs and real lows thrown in. FA Cup wins and wins over Spurs, contrasted with Champions League hammerings and not even qualifying last year. Ask any Arsenal fan, and this moment will probably rank number one since we moved to the Emirates. That says something.

So it's great that, after years of wilderness, Arsène has finally recognised it's time. But Wenger aside, a lot has happened since the Highbury years. We've seen a globalisation of football, foreign owners injecting their cash into the English game and Premier League television rights exploding into the billons and billions.

Foreign investment can bring hugely positive results for clubs. Look no further than Chelsea and Man City. Often mid table teams before Abramovich and the UAE came to the rescue. Arsenal, though, represent the antithesis of that. Unlike Abramovich, who, in exile from Russia wanted an exciting project to take on as a football fan, or the UAE, who were happy to write off a few billion for the publicity of a football team, Stan Kroenke invested in Arsenal and runs it for personal gain.

Stan Kroenke clapping

This is the dark side of foreign investment. An owner who is never there, and only hears about the club through his bank statement. Wenger in or Wenger out, something else has happened since Highbury. It was Arsenal FC, now it's Arsenal KSE (Kroenke Sports Enterprises). And that is the deep lying problem.

Arsenal may well get Joachim Löw, and somehow qualify for the Champions League. Who knows. But there will always be a ceiling, with an owner like Kroenke. Instead of an authentic feeling of winning and supporting the team, it feels like buying a Louis Vuitton bag, except that Louis Vuitton is also a football team. It is symptomatic of this new world of 21st football, but Arsenal are absolutely the best (or worst) example of it.

I moved to Spain in January, a land where the full extent of this problem hasn't yet been reached. Of course, there are some examples. Valencia, who have had mixed results under the ownership of Peter Lim. After two seasons of mid table mediocrity, they are headed for a Champions League spot next year. Or Malaga, who have been destroyed and neglected by Qatari owner Nasser Al Thani. Their relegation to the second tier of Spanish football was confirmed on Thursday after a 1-0 loss to Levante.

What Real Madrid and Barcelona have in common is that they are both fan owned. There is a president, often despised but correctly elected. While they too have seen the impact of football globalisation, it has been in a controlled manner. Shirt sponsors and player recruitment, sure, but the identity of the club has been generally retained.

I am a big believer in club values, fan involvement and local talent. If there is a reason I now follow Athletic Bilbao with more enthusiasm than Arsenal, it's that. Athletic is a team that prides itself on only using players from the region, core club values that will never change, and a fanbase that are a part of the club, not just customers. Although in the modern world of football it's becoming hard to compete, this is what happens when they triumph. A Supercup win in 2015 brought a deep sense of elation, and the city to a standstill. This is what football is about.