Here’s a stat: the last time Arsenal played a full season without Robin van Persie, they went undefeated in the league. 26 wins, 12 draws, 90 points, and a trophy.
Nice thought, that. “There’s hope yet,” it seems to say, “perhaps more hope than you ever imagined.” But as much as I’d like to be known as the pseudo-Nostradamus ITK, even I have to admit this is a facetious comparison. The Invincibles were a once-in-a-lifetime kind of team, and it would be hubristic to expect this current generation of Gunners to replicate that 2003/04 season, Van Persie or No Persie.
RvP’s only significance here is that with him leaves the last lynchpin of this post-Invincibles generation, the Johnny-come-latelies, the heirs who could never quite escape the long shadows of their deified predecessors. Disbanded, the team built around Cesc Fabregas. The team of frustrated talents and perennial disappointment. The team whose underachievements have been well-documented by all and sundry, and I don’t want to get into that here.
All I want to do is to pose a simple question: How will we remember them? When they write the history of Arsenal, one hundred years from now, will this silver generation be just another blip on the map? Will their names ring any bells? Will we tell the stories of the nearly-almost-theres?
Imagine with me, for a moment. The year is 2004. You are promised — you are the promise of — the world. You’re working with a manager, a team, who just won the league undefeated. You know yourself to be a child born under the auspices of glory. Paradoxically, you also know that there’s no way you can ever live up to the ones who came before. You have hope, though. You have ambition. So you play. But in time, you find your hopes ground to dust in the aftermath of the game. You win some, you lose some; it never seems to be enough.
Hope need not be a casualty of competitive sport. But when sport is moderated by achievement rather than fulfillment, everything gets thrown under the bus, patience and prudence sacrificed for machine-like efficacy (with cash as lubricant). So-and-so completed only 60% of his passes last week? Bench him. Sell him. Off with his head. With the information age, with the advent of Twitter and Facebook and the world wide blogosphere, public scrutiny is deadlier than ever before.
Imagine the psychological scars that come with falling short of expectation, week after week, year after year. When nothing ever prepared you for this. When you were groomed to soar to the highest of unimaginable heights. But stepping out into the world, what you found instead was gravity.
“It wasn’t really the losing,” said Fabregas after he left Arsenal, “it was the routine. Year after year, it was always the same story. Fighting until the end only to see we didn’t have the energy, in the semifinals, the finals, to arrive in the final sprint.”
A champion, to borrow Kipling’s formula, is one who can meet with triumph and disaster and treat both just the same. One who falls, bleeds, picks himself up, and goes on, time after time after time. Because triumph takes struggle, so struggle we must.
These are all truisms. But sometimes this teleological view blinds us to the most visceral truth: that perhaps we’ve come to expect overmuch of our heroes, of the footballers whom we watch and admire and abuse. Is it wrong to ask them to carry a small piece of our dreams? No. That’s their job. But to demand that they be made of superhuman steel? To expect impossibility, rather than to hope. Condemning setbacks to disappointment, rather than embracing the struggle with the empathy of a fellow human-in-arms.
Footballers are only mortal, too, after all. Lest we forget Robert Enke. Lest we delude ourselves into thinking that football is merely a story, a spectacle, a show — and lose sight of how players are real people, real lives. Heart and blood and sinew make up the men who wear the shirt and carry the crest, and they are every bit as human as you or I.
None of this is to say that we should be content with second-best. Fourth place is not a trophy, and neither are signings that come to naught. Nor is it to claim that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Because it does the opposite, too: with time, emotional wear and tear can bend even the stiffest upper lip.
This is not to excuse Samir Nasri trading pride for a paycheck. This is not to excuse Cesc Fabregas’ virtual boycott of a team and manager who had invested everything in him, as a player and as a captain. This is not to excuse Robin van Persie.
This is just to say, the post-Invincibles generation inhabited that twilight zone between “I know I’m better than this” and “I’m never going to be good enough.” This is just to say that money isn’t a cure for the pressures and the doubts that come with the game. And maybe we expect too much, sometimes, concede too little a margin for human error. Somewhere in the after-images of greatness, perhaps, we begin to lose sight of the simple needs that come with the struggle. Solidarity. Support. Empathy.
Victoria Concordia Crescit, lest we forget. Victory comes through harmony.
So this is how I’ll remember the post-Invincibles. And as a new group of Gunners prepare to take center stage, I wish them a gentler journey than the road trod and left by the ones who had gone before. The last time Arsenal played a full season without Robin van Persie, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was only 10 years old. Times have changed. Hope, renewed. The question now is what we will do with that hope, whether we will spend it wisely, remembering the promise of that generation who tried to follow in the footsteps of demigods.