Ken Early: Is Mourinho the perfect man to take charge of what Arsenal is becoming?
With the way things are going at Arsenal, maybe the time has come for a lurch to the dark side
José Mourinho waving to fans from a TV studio during the match between United and Liverpool at Old Trafford on October 20th. Maybe his hour is at hand to offer Arsenal fans a new enemy to tear apart every week, the grinning ringmaster at the circus of hate. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images
The Granit Xhaka episode at Arsenal has prompted reflections on the nature and obligations of fandom. On one extreme the hard-edged Toryism of West Ham’s Mark Noble: “The fans pay their hard-earned money, they go to the games and they have a right to express their opinion.”
You buy the ticket and do as you please, like in Westworld.
Others criticised Arsenal supporters for forgetting that the duty of a supporter is to support, as though showing anger at one of your own players was a crime against the game. Both of these views seem incomplete or unrealistic.
Yes, for match-going fans football is a day out with their friends, the chance to sing a few songs and maybe cheer a couple of goals together – in theory, the occasion for a positive experience.
But the things fans say, the feelings they express in the stadium are not always positive. They’re not even usually positive.
Maybe there exists perfectly decent and optimistic supporters who only support their team in the most pleasant and positive way, but few of us have ever met one.
Certainly they are not as common as the chronically angry fans who seem determined to make the world around them pay for some private misery, and spend the match screaming at everybody about how shit they are. Nobody wants to be stuck near one of these people at a match, yet most of us have also been that person from time to time.
Even the average, normally-adjusted fan generally loses all faith after their team concedes a goal, and spends the rest of the match blaming everything that goes wrong on their chosen scapegoats, whether that be the manager, some player they have decided to hate, the corrupt officials, etc.
Vaunt over his corpse
And fans can be as nasty in victory as in defeat. The ugly truth: football without gloating is nothing. Gloating has been the spice of human confrontation since the dawn of history. The Iliad is essentially a succession of episodes where warrior A strikes down warrior B, then springs forth to vaunt over his corpse, gloating over the widow and little children who will never see their hero again.
This sort of behaviour may not be very nice, but it comes to people quite naturally, and football’s ability to provide a regular and relatively harmless outlet for it has always been part of the game’s appeal, to those who play as well as those who watch.
Few players understand this better than Granit Xhaka, who famously baited Serbian fans with an Albanian eagle gesture after scoring against them in the World Cup. If public displays of peevish rage, sadistic mockery and trolling mean-spiritedness came to be considered beyond the pale, football stadiums would empty out pretty quickly. It’s meant to be mock-gladiatorial combat, not group therapy.
But has the prevailing atmosphere become more malignant in recent years? It does feel that way, especially at Arsenal, and there are a few reasons why London’s biggest club might be leading this trend.
Hours are long
The first thing about Arsenal is that most of their match-going fans live in London. Life in the megalopolis is a grind. Rents are high, hours are long. London is crowds, noise, congestion, pollution. You spend your days stuck in traffic, scurrying through underground tunnels like a termite, sweating in overcrowded train carriages.
Forty years after Thatcher’s rise, job security has been phased out, work life is increasingly defined by competition, precarity and anxiety, old institutions of community have melted away.
For many the football club has assumed a grossly inflated importance in the construction of their personal identity. The result is a lot of stressed-out people, simmering with latent anger, who take what is happening out on the pitch far too seriously.
Then consider the changing relationship of the fans to the players. There has always been a complicated love-hate dynamic to that relationship, because at some level fans can never forgive players for living the dream they couldn’t live themselves, for being the ones who are out there under the lights while they, the fans, huddle in the shadows with all the other nobodies.
But at least in the 1970s and 1980s, the fans on the terraces and the players on the pitch still had important things in common. On average they were about the same age, and they lived more or less similar kinds of lives.
In 2019 the average Premier League supporter is a man in his mid-40s, thickening in the middle and thinning on top, while the players are 20-something millionaires. Young, fit, beautiful, famous and rich – it’s hard to imagine a more offensive combination of qualities in the eyes of a middle-aged man.
The fans can just about tolerate it when the players are doing well. But if a player should somehow express some kind of dissent or ingratitude, all bets are off. Xhaka’s open show of disrespect was a flamethrower applied to the vast petroleum lake of all that pent up anger and resentment. The ensuing hate-inferno was as inevitable as chemistry.
At Arsenal the flames of the inferno are fanned every few days by the YouTube channel formerly known as Arsenal Fan TV, the biggest of all the fan-reaction YouTubes that have sprung up in the last few years. AFTV has succeeded because it’s funny to watch grown men rant and rave about football frustrations, at least for a while, until it gets old and has to be ratcheted up a level. The obvious logic of the business model is for the ranting and raving to grow more extreme over time.
It’s not that AFTV is producing or driving the negativity, so much as that it reflects a world in which performative outrage is rewarded because it attracts eyeballs. AFTV do it professionally for money, millions of others do it for likes and LOLS. To be sure, much internet anger is semi- or fully ironic, but it has always been hard to tell whether people on the internet are joking or not. Whatever everyone’s motivations or intentions, the outcome is a world in which “I hope your kid gets cancer” no longer seems like a very surprising thing to say to a footballer.
Lose his job
The crowd at Arsenal has turned decisively against Unai Emery, and the speculation has moved from whether he is likely to lose his job to whom the club will choose to replace him. The name of José Mourinho – trophy-laden, London-based, at a loose end – soon appeared in the speculative swirl.
Appointing an arch-troll who has been acrimoniously fired from his last two Premier League jobs, who is identified with a stale and dated style of football that goes against everything Arsenal since Wenger are supposed to stand for, who is indelibly associated with Chelsea, a major London rival, and who spent much of his time as Chelsea manager taunting Arsenal and their manager . . . well, on the face of it, this is a bad and perverse idea.
And yet with the way things are going at Arsenal, maybe the time has come for a lurch to the dark side. Already you hear Arsenal fans saying things along the lines of well, I’ve never liked him, but he’s a winner isn’t he? Yes, I’ve always thought he’s a monster, but he’d be our monster...
Maybe the hour of Mourinho is at hand, maybe he is the perfect man to take charge of what Arsenal is becoming, to sign Nemanja Matic, marginalise Guendouzi and play Aubameyang at left-back, to whip up the crowd to new paroxysms of rage and offer them a new enemy to tear apart every week, the mocking mirror to their transformation, the grinning ringmaster at the circus of hate.