"There's only one team in Russia." This was the chant we were greeted with as we exited the tube at the appropriately named "Arsenal" stop. From the other end of the platform came a surprisingly loud response: "Five years, and you've won f*ckall." Hello there, Chelsea supporters. I guess it wasn't a huge surprise - after all, our train had originated in blue territory.
The walk inside the tube station seems to last forever. It's a crush of people, and you walk up a long incline to reach the actual exit. Frequently, an Arsenal or Chelsea shout rises above the throng, and depending on the song and the receptiveness of the crowd, either immediately dies out or ignites like flame to newspaper. I want to join in, especially with the more obscene chants - my time with the gooners at Nevada Smith's taught me well - but I'm with my dad and my younger brother. Propriety wins out for the time being.
Once outside the tube station, it's still several blocks to the stadium. It's a chilly, damp evening with a very light drizzle that occasionally looks and feels as though snow is falling. The weather has been like this for two days, and it will persist until we leave. England is nothing if not predictable in this way. Like the most important and enormous U.S. sporting events, almost all the roads around the area have been closed for pedestrian-use only. Shops and carts hawking knockoff jerseys, scarves, and grub line the streets. I see some amazing t-shirts that would either cost $40+ after shipping to the U.S. or that would be simply unavailable. But the throng is moving too fast, and I insist on being inside the stadium to see the players warm up. Next time.
The first few minutes of this video give a good idea of that walk.
The Emirates is large, and it is impressive. I doubt it has the same grandeur as Milan's San Siro, Barca's Nou Camp (Juan, I'll have to come over and find out soon), or Madrid's Bernabeu. Heck, Old Trafford is supposed to be pretty impressive. But I'm sufficiently awed. I'm not sure if they're planning on adding more, but the murals are pretty awesome, and appear at random intervals around the stadium. These murals depict the backs of Arsenal legends, arm in arm, transcending their individual eras, teammates forever. It's fair to say that I'm getting pretty amped at this point.
When we get inside, I can't believe where we're sitting. Without going into too much detail, the seats that I thought were upper-deckers turned out to be just the opposite. The numbers I thought referred to a section actually referred to a luxury box almost directly above the corner flag. I was surprised when we initially got tickets, because the game was an obvious sell-out. But this is crazy. We're in the front row of the section. The view of the field is sublime. I grab my free match program and lineup card. The only drawback: directly below us, a high-spirited group of blue-clad individuals produces a tremendous amount of noise and directs a few choice hand gestures at the surrounding sections. Hello again, Chelsea supporters.
During warmups, my brother and I spend a few minutes just identifying the key players for our father. Kickoff approaches rapidly. Elvis Presley's "The Wonder of You" floats through the misty night air and lingers above the rapidly growing crowd. We're getting close. The music from Requiem for a Dream (the English really love that soundtrack) blasts as the jumbotron shows highlights from past Arsenal-Chelsea clashes and great Arsenal goals. I think about one of the last emails I received before I left the hotel. My fellow TLOCA correspondent sent me instructions to take pictures and video and concluded with a prediction: "3-1 Arsenal. Write it down." Given the recent history between the sides, my hopes are more modest. A 1-1 draw. And maybe, just maybe, a 2-1 victory. Kickoff.
The game starts at a frantic pace. I'm struggling to take it all in. Stream of consciousness time. Good chances for both teams. RVP should do better with an incredibly good chipped pass from Song. Song has obviously been hanging out with Cesc and Wilshere a lot. Cesc and Nasri have fantastic close control. If they want it to be, the ball is dead the instant it touches their feet. Drogba may have been sick, but he's still a physical presence that causes problems. Fail to deal with him at your peril. He sends a torpedo just wide of the post. Theo is FAST. Like, unbelievably fast. Like Mike Vick fast. He gives Ashley a hell of a time, and we eat it up.
BOOOOO. We hate Ashley Cole. Oh yes, indeed. We also consistently express our dislike for the classy, and not at all terrible person known as John Terry. (Drogba also gets booed, but it's a respectful boo. It's the kind of boo that non-Cardinals fans give Albert Pujols.) But we really save it for Ca$hley. Over the course of warm-ups, he was booed. During the game, he was booed literally every time he came near the ball, let alone touched it. When he so much as appeared to move his mouth or talk to the referee or an Arsenal player, he was booed mercilessly. The crowd never got tired of it. Other than the goals and the final whistle, the biggest cheer of the night came when Theo cleverly got himself fouled by A. Cole. Yellow card. Humongous din.
Meanwhile, another battle is taking place. The song wars began before kickoff, and they persist throughout the first half. I do my part. But for the majority of the first half, the Chelsea supporters give a very good account of themselves. For one, Arsenal isn't known for being the loudest venue (after all, Highbury was nicknamed "the library" by opposing fans), and because of the self-selection involved, these Chelsea fans are the craziest die-hards. They're loud, fearless, and inebriated. But now and then, they get riled up when "Sh*t Club, No History" rings out across the remainder of the stadium. It's fun to see them collectively bristle.
"Super Frankie Lampard" Wasn't So Super That Night
Arsenal's ticky-tacky and insistence on walking it into the net is even more frustrating in person. And when you're surrounded by 55,000 other people that are screaming for someone to shoot, it's even more magnified. Even my father, a self-proclaimed neutral (mostly for the benefit of my brother, a Chelsea fan), begins yelling out that familiar blend of encouragement and frustration. Nasri finally obliges with a beautiful and skillful shot. Top corner... until Cech answers with a poster-worthy save. Crap. Back to ticky-tacky. How many times, in how many pubs, have we felt this? You get worked up into a frenzy that has no signs of being released. Of course, that is, until the ticky-tacky actually works, and in the span of maybe 1.5 seconds your brain has to process: oh great pass by Wilshere, is that a penalty on Cesc, and OH IT DOESN'T MATTER ALEX SONG JUST SCORED RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. Oh my God. Cue insanity on all sides except directly below. The self-restraint I was exercising on behalf of my father and brother vanishes in an instant.
"One Nil to the Arsenal." "Ashley, what's the score? Ashley, Ashley, what's the score?" "Who Are Ya?" "There's only one team in London." "You can stick your Russian rubles up your Arse!" "We've only got one Song!" The Chelsea fans have no response. They're shell-shocked. The referee blows for halftime. More cheering. I investigate what the good people of Goldman Sachs (yeah...) have provided in the way of food and drink. Roast beef and beer. Yes, please. I also leave the box and go into the hallway that leads to the bathroom. I walk past a young man who looks strong and athletic and who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jude Law. He's wearing well tailored jeans that probably cost upwards of $1,000. I do my best to keep my jaw from actually dropping. It's Thomas Vermaelen. I nod at him and smile. He nods back. When I return to my seat, the guy behind me shows me a picture on his camera. It's him and Vermaelen. Why the hell didn't I think to do that? Err... next time?
Second half. Just hold on, baby. My brother insists that Chelsea will score. He repeatedly insists that it will be Ivanovic with a header. He (rightfully) points out that Arsenal can't defend players like that during set pieces. I laugh him off and tell him that, if anything, it'll be Drogba and he'll score two. The Chelsea fans have found their voices again. They're feeling good. But suddenly, the ball breaks lose from a tackle. Chelsea are caught playing a line that's way too high. Theo is on the ball - he's faster than everyone else on the pitch. He squares it - of course he squares it - for El Capitan. Holy crap. It's two. What next?
I barely have time to process this information. I turn to my dad, and just as I'm telling him "this is not what I expected," Malouda dallies on the ball for a split second too long and Theo picks his pocket. Cesc and Theo are running free again how on earth oh my god what a pass please just shoot Theo he actually shot AND WOW WHAT A GOAL THAT IS. From our angle, you could see the ball leave his foot and travel along its perfectly straight trajectory into the corner. I knew immediately that Cech had absolutely no chance at saving it. Amazing. The cheering didn't stop for about five minutes.
We tell Ancelotti he's being sacked in the morning. We remind Chelsea that we have Cesc Fabregas. We shamelessly declare our love for Arsenal. We announce that this is, in fact, by far the greatest team the world has ever seen. It's an overpowering feeling. My brother is a good sport. Especially after Ivanovic scores what turns out to be a consolation header. I immediately regret not placing a bet on his prediction during half time. Especially because in the luxury boxes, pretty girls circulate around both before the match and during halftime to take your bets. I'm not even joking. (The lesson, as always, is to listen when Juan and Sam give you predictions.) The Chelsea fans are briefly invigorated by Ivanovic's goal, but their team simply cannot get ahold of the ball. We are Ole-ing like there's no tomorrow. There's one move that probably had nearly 40 passes in it. We should score at least three or four more. My father is screaming at Nasri and Diaby when they fail to take their chances. I think he may be on board the Gunner Express at this point. And in an atmosphere like this, how could you not be?
Indeed, we find ourselves on our feet, screaming encouragement with thousands of others as Song and Rosicky break towards the Chelsea goal right at the end. Final whistle. A mighty roar. Huge applause for the gunners. To their credit, the Chelsea players are gracious in defeat. Lampard, Terry, Drogba and Essien apologetically applaud the ten masochistic Chelsea fans that stayed to the end. "Movin' On Up" on the speakers. To quote the great Jack Buck, "I don't believe what I just saw."
We stop outside the stadium to take a few pictures. As you can see, it's dark and drizzly and the shots aren't great, but all I need is confirmation. I was here. This happened. "Please don't climb on the cannons." With this crowd, feeling the way it does, that's a joke. The walk back to the Tube takes a long time, but once we're at the station, the London Tube is efficient. Along the way, we pass pubs full of red and white. Everyone ecstatic. Some of my favorite songs from the evening were heard during this walk: "We beat the scum 3-1!" "La la la let's get f*ckin' wasted." And so on. Straight to the point.
When we get back to Victoria, I sleep for ten hours. The next morning, I'm still on a high. I get dressed and go down to the lobby. The hotel always has copies of the Guardian ("Ruthless Arsenal Come of Age to Turn Chelsea's Slump into a Crisis") and the Daily Telegraph ("The Real Deal: Arsenal Show Title Class with 3-1 Win Over Chelsea"). I grab one of each and walk down the street to a little Lebanese cafe/restaurant. It's Lebanese, but the cook fries up a mean English breakfast. I'm the only person in the place, and he sees what I'm reading. "Ah, Arsenal," he says. "Good result yesterday." "Yes it was," I say. Yes it was.