By Amanda Beemer
As much as I love the Chicago Fire, and I absolutely, unequivocally do, in my heart of hearts I am a Gooner. Fans of MLS, ardent as they may be, tend to know somewhere deep down that our clubs will be eternally inferior to those in the UK, no matter how much we try to imitate them. All the slang and hooliganism we mimic seems then to be an attempt to compensate for the fact that the standard of play can never live up to that found in the English leagues (despite however many internationals we bring in). We support local clubs because it’s important and the right thing to do, but when Saturday comes you can find us at the pub watching our boys from across the pond.
Thus, when choosing dates for travel to London, my first internet stop was the Arsenal website to see if perhaps there was a preseason match I could catch while in town. Lucky for me, the Emirates Cup was to begin the day after I planned on arriving. The first thing I did after booking a plane ticket was to buy a ringside ticket to day two of the tournament, to see Arsenal take on SPL legends Celtic FC (and perhaps catch the AC Milan v Olympique Lyonnais match beforehand). Once in London, I went to Lilywhites at Piccadilly right away and picked up an Arsenal home jersey to commemorate the occasion.
Match day came and I eagerly boarded the Piccadilly line tube to the Emirates, disembarking at the aptly named Arsenal stop (thank you, Mr. Chapman). Upon crossing the footbridge to the grounds I was confronted with a massive stadium; within me at that moment was a hysterical schoolgirl, but I managed to suppress my urges to squeal, cry, faint, and repeat, and found my way to the box office. I made it inside just after AC Milan and Olympique Lyonnais had finished – I think it was a tie? and took my seat in the lower tier of the orange corner. Across the pitch was the Celtic support section, their green and white stripes plainly contrasting with the rest of the stadium.
The match itself was brilliant – 3-2 Arsenal which resulted in their securing the Emirates Cup title for another year. Goals came by way of a toepoke from striker Carlos Vela about three minutes in, and defender Bacary Sagna who scored from the corner of the penalty box just before the end of the half, at which point Celtic looked tired and outplayed. Celtic seemed unable to control themselves; they squandered cherry opportunities at goal and had massive trouble keeping possession – Arsenal’s defenders kept deftly snatching the ball away in the attacking third. About five minutes into the second half substitute midfielder Samir Nasri scored a proper goal, making the score 3-0 and assuring Arsenal a win. By the 60’ it seemed Arsenal was just toying with Celtic – had I a working cell phone I would have called the only Celtic fan I know back home and cheerfully woke him up with the sound of his club losing.
Arsenal’s infallibly swift passing and efficacious sliding were no match for the Celtic side. When Celtic made a three-man substitution around the 70’, Arsenal gaffer Arsene Wenger responded straightaway by putting in Andrey Arshavin, Kieran Gibbs, and Emmanuel Eboue (cue the “We’ve only come to see Eboue” chant). The Celtic lineup changes resulted in two quick goals scored, seemingly out of nowhere. However, just as Celtic fans were beginning to piece together scraps of their dignity the match ended -unsuspecting of the further blows to come in the following days.
All in all, a fantastic match in which the Gunners’ depth, dexterity, and grace were put on display; the absences of superstars Van Persie and Fabregas were barely noticed accordingly. Although the pace reflected that of a friendly, the match on the whole was genuine. The love of the beautiful game was exemplified by the magnitude of the new stadium and the care for the pitch, which was watered and had divots repaired both before the match and at halftime. The community orientation of the club shone through at halftime when the announcer spoke over the p.a. with a laundry list of local news and congratulations, and welcomes to the Americans and even one Canadian in the stands, who was named directly.
As was somewhat expected, I felt more at home 4,000 miles away in a near sold-out stadium thrice the size and with four times as many attendees (59,727 to be exact). The Chicago stadium experience is sterile in comparison, with the exception of the support section which has always included and therefore taken cues from European supporters. Going back to the piddling MLS is going to be difficult, especially now that I know firsthand that everything we envy and dream about English clubs – the play, the pitch, the stadium, the fans, the atmosphere, the segregated sections, the stationed security, et cetera, et cetera – is true.
Amanda is a long-time Chicago resident and avid Chicago Fire (and Arsenal!) fan, and has been following MLS for the better part of a decade. Although she makes an awesome spectator, she is a god-awful player. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org