The truth is for the most part of my short life, I generally didn't like football. I was one of those men that other men looked upon strangely and thought of as homosexual because I did not seem to profess rabid allegiance to any club in particular or knew anything about the topic. For example, if somebody were to ask me before the 2003/2004 Premiership League season whether I was an Arsenal fan, I would have very likely told him that I abhor violence and have no interest in weapons. If I were particularly grumpy that day, I might even mount my moral high horse and take round a few turns whoever it was that asked me that singular question that betrayed my complete and utter ignorance and give him a chunk of my mind about the evils of warfare. Before that fateful season, the name Henry would still be some generic English name and not one said with a silent 'H' in a French like manner in rapture, awe and frustration and clasped hands with eyes averted to the heavens.
Now I used the word 'generally' because though I paid no heed, if not wilfully ignored, the matches played by the clubs in England, Italy and Spain, a strange passion gripped me during the World Cup. Suddenly, I knew most of the players in the national teams, their worth to the team in general and amazingly had a fairly workable knowledge of their abilities. Don't ask me how, I just knew. Now why my passion to watch grown men in shorts kick a ball around should only be aroused to a intensely fevered pitch every once four years escaped me. Maybe group dynamics and sociology may have the answer, or perhaps I really did like to see grown men in shorts kick a ball around. Perhaps it was the whole idea of a contest between the finest players from each country competing mano a mano, or more accurately, pies a los pies. One must understand of course, these were the feelings and thoughts of one yet to be introduced to the genius of Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal.
Now with these state of affairs and the natural inclination for most Malaysian males towards football, one can certainly appreciate that after the topics of sex, movies, sex, women, sex and sex have been thoroughly exhausted after a long, hard and a titillatingly penetrating discussion, the topic naturally drifts to football. It is inevitable. It is useless to fight against it. It is like trying to fight with gravity or argue with your own mother. You will never win. Resistance is futile. And if you knew nothing about football, you might as well have transformed into a dark maroon wallpaper with hideous purple polkadots, because that would be the end of your participation. The conversation would be thick and fast with a host of English and foreign names being thrown about, the table would be banged on occasion spilling some drinks, voices raised, fake smiles broaden to accomodate the bullshit, highly unfair comparisons before any disagreements are finally uneasily settled with a bet when their respective teams met next time. And I didn't understand any of it. For almost a quarter of a century of my life.
It was sometime I think during the early part of 2003/2004 Premiership League season that I recalled the words of one of my parents' family friends. What he told me was in the context of food. He was this incredibly fit Scottish eighty year old man who would visit us on occasion in Malaysia and could eat just about anything you threw at him. He was not fazed by the spiciness of the local fare. He did not care about the filthy stalls we sneaked him too when his wife wasn't looking. He loved to roam around with my uncles to look for interesting and novel fare wherever he went. He didn't need to know what it was called or care at how unsavoury a dish looked. It was in this context that I asked him how he was able to eat food so foreign and alien to him. He told me that if someone was of the opinion that a particular dish was good then it meant that there was something tasty about it in there and it was for him to understand and discover what it was. Each new dish he discovered was like an adventure for him.
It was in this spirit therefore I approached football. If there were so many people mad about the game, surely there was something in there that made them be so. It was for me to discover it. Feeling somewhat though not even remotely close like Dr. Livingstone, I set forth on my football education. My father was a football fan but he never really discussed the matter with me. Perhaps due to my lack of interest. And so it was to him I asked what team he supported and requested advice on what team I should watch. Being an Arsenal fan since his University days, he naturally recommended the same team and told me when I could catch them next.
One must also understand that the 2003/2004 season for Arsenal was particularly noteworthy because it was the season that they went through an entire season undefeated in their league games breaking a 115 year old record, played some of the most spectacular brand of attacking football on the planet and possessed some of the best players in the business. Of course I didn't know all this at the time. As far as I was concerned, I was going to turn on the television, watch grown men kick a ball around and then try and keep myself receptive and open to the experience.
So there I found myself one evening sitting in front of the television waiting for the match to begin. Feeling like a virgin again, not quite sure whether I was doing was right since the experience was all so new to me. I felt I should have had a beer in one hand and a pack of crisps in the other but I thought best to skip lest it distract me from the game. Then it began.
And from the moment the game began, I was mesmerized. The sofa, my ignorance, the darkness of the living room, the reality outside that screen discreetly fell away as gracefully as a space shuttle parting company from the Mir Space Station. My eyes were charmed, hypnotized and compelled like the Wedding Guest that was singled out by the Ancient Mariner to hear his tale. I could not help but hear, but in this case see. My eyes were transfixed to the television screen not daring to look away less I miss some mind-blowing pass by Patrick Viera, some quick though fancy footwork of Robert Pires, the solid defence marshalled by a soulful yet tanklike Campbell and the safe though occasional mad hands of Jens Lehmann.
Above all, I was in complete and total awe of a 27 year old french forward named Thierry Henry who stole the show as he gunned the goals. Whenever he was close to the ball, I felt excitement. Whenever the ball fell to his feet, I felt something like an electric shock. But it was those unbelievable runs, those supernatural turns, those death defying dummies and his sheer genius with the ball that made his solo goals approaching the equivalent of what I feel best described in sexual terms as having the dinner, foreplay, wild sexual act, dirty talk, bed breaking orgasms with the post coital cuddle all in that two minute physical soliloquy of scintillating sublimity. The intensity and command of his performance sealed it for me. If his team made me fall from ignorance into the usual senseless rabid loyal fan, then Henry was the huge boulder that crushed me completely and sealed my new role.
They have been playing badly since then. Sometimes they are too painful to watch on occasions these days. But I pledge my allegiance to Arsenal not because of their heritage but because I think if it were not for watching Arsenal during that halcyon season, I would not have fallen in love with football so deeply and readily as I did then.