As one who for many reasons no longer goes to live matches, it is the European nights I miss the most.
Special nights these, wonderful nights. Even the approach to the floodlit ground is different, the excitement is palpable. “Champions league”, the name says it all. Only the best get here. Groups of visiting fans converge on the stadium, conversing in foreign languages, chanting and singing unintelligible songs with familiar tunes.
They push unashamedly at burger bars and in that holy of holies, the Highbury fish bar, not having been raised in the British habit of orderly queuing. Street traders rip off our guests wholesale, as they grapple with an unfamiliar currency, whilst collecting the promised souvenir for kids back home. Extra police, many mounted, ignore the touts moving through the crush asking for spare tickets to resell.
Into the ground, up to your seat, looking down on that magnificent pitch, the centrepiece, a beautiful lush green stage, waiting for the players and the drama that will surely unfold. The glare of the lights emphasising and enhancing the myriad colours that assault the senses.
Gooners of all shapes and sizes stand restless, unable to sit or relax, thumbing through programmes, glossy pictorial reminders of triumphs past on nights like this and featuring the cast list for the upcoming performance.
A special buzz circulates the ground fuelled by excitement and apprehension. The tension can be felt, the familiar somehow becomes unfamiliar. Yes the same seat and view, but still it’s different, an unknown quantity. These are not regular visitors, a familiar adversary, but foes from across the water, foreigner’s playing the game we invented and now here to try and show us how it’s done.
The teams enter the arena, the roar grows to a crescendo; strong men go weak at the knees, older men weak in the bowels. Anthems play, sound reverberates from side to side, round and round the home of football.
Triumph or disaster it’s now in the lap of the football gods. Foreign referees, dressed in yellow with arms like windmills as befits their need to be noticed and love of a show, book the tacklers, but welcome the wrestlers as part of the game.
Italian and Argentinean hard men compete alongside Spanish maestros and Latino divers, who throw themselves to the ground at the least suggestion of a touch, convulse acrobatically in simulated death throes, prior to a heroic recovery on the stretcher. Each act carefully choreographed, orchestrated and designed simply to break up the flow of the game and waste playing time. Presenting unfamiliar challenges and frustrations to home based fans and players alike, reared on a diet of frantic, high-speed premiership football.
The next hour and three quarters will not only decide which team progresses, but also make or ruin thousands of supporter’s, night, week, or year depending on the result and degree of obsession.
Oh yes, I miss those nights. If you’re fortunate enough to be going, shout for me too. Win or lose, hang on to the moment, for they are extra special nights, an experience to be treasured and stored safe in the memory for when the years have passed and age catches up with you.
My favourite European memory? Easy. Jon Sammels, a class act, oft derided like Bendy and Theo, scoring against Anderlecht, to bring not only the first ever-European trophy to Highbury, but also the first trophy of any kind for 17 years and start the rise of the Modern Arsenal.
By our Guest Writer dandan