Lose your religion, keep the faith

An Arsenal fan goes through the most. (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

An Arsenal fan goes through the most. (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

If you took the ghost of Karl Marx down to Alexandra and showed him the forest of satellite dishes sprouting from shack eaves, he would need to sit down and have a smoke and a dop — and then revise his best one-liner.

Most of those DStv subscriptions are bought for the ample consolations of live football, which means that if religion was the opium of the people in Marx’s reckoning, football is now the methadone of the masses — a substitute drug for pantheists and unbelievers. Leo Messi can hit a few spots that even his countryman in the Vatican can’t.

Also, worshipping a sports team offers you some consumer rights that old-school religion doesn’t. You can’t just sommer stand up and yell obscene abuse at your preferred deity whenever he or she fluffs a chance to make you happy.

Well, you can if you really want to — but the log-leading gods are touchy creative types who are liable to freak out and overreact when you criticise their work, sometimes retaliating with lightning, plagues and junk ratings. More often, they give you the silent treatment — and raging at an absence is just silly.

Supporting a football team offers a sanctimony-free version of the pleasures of religion — the communal hope and suffering, the long-term suspension of disbelief, the occasional miracle. Sometimes you are graced by a passing messiah, until he buggers off to Chelsea or Downs during the window. You pay your tithes at the turnstile or with your satellite TV debit order, and you get an erratic stream of blessings if you’re lucky.

But we fans can and do get crucified by our saviours. I know this. I started following Arsenal in 1990, at age 14, for a range of flimsy reasons: that yellow-and-blue away kit was cool in a goofy acid-house kind of way, and Anders Limpar ran down the touchline like a rabbit on acid, and the Gunners were top of the log that September. It was a lucky hunch, because we won the title that year — this despite Tony Adams’s drink-driving jail term and a two-point deduction for the noble crime of physically assaulting Manchester United at Old Trafford.

So, I was a champion. Personally saved. On a trip to London in 1992, I went to worship at Highbury and stood in the thick of the North Bank, a terraced stand crammed with cold, drunk, barely upright working men. It was a league tie against Aston Villa. At kick-off, I savoured the sweet “doef!” of leather on leather as a stripe of thin February sunshine anointed the turf. I was 15 but tall enough to see the whole pitch, and I felt like I was entering the gates of heaven. A hellish game ensued — it ended 0-0.

Totally unsatisfied, I chased my losses by going to Loftus Road the next Saturday to see Arsenal visit Queen’s Park Rangers. Another miserable goalless draw. Whenever the opponents’ snazzily coiffured midfielder Roy Wegerle took a corner, the Arsenal fans around me snarled in chorus: “Does your boyfriend know you’re ’ere?” Suddenly, we Gooners were losers — and fuckin’ arseholes to boot.

The curse lifted, big time, with the inauguration of Pope Arsène I in 1996. Seven years of beatific football ensued, fuzzily haloed with silver and gold. Thierry, Freddie, Paddy, Robert, Dennis; three league titles and four FA Cups. I never got back to Highbury, but watching this Arsenal generation play on TV led me to believe that the world, my world, was a better place than I had ever dared to imagine. Order and dreams could be seamlessly mixed. The individual and the collective could be one. Pleasure and effort were not mutually exclusive. Arsenal were a controlled experiment in human happiness.

Not so fast, kid. Just as I became a professional football journalist and could thus devote more time to watching the game than seemed ethical for a grown-up, Wenger lost his monopoly on intelligent team-building and we lost our grip on silverware. The lean years, which continue to this day despite a few weakly consolatory FA Cup wins, have brought a different kind of allegiance: a dogged, addictive attachment to a doomed project, which of course sounds a lot like many forms of religious faith.

Arsenal and Wenger’s failures are as endlessly interpretable as any holy book, full of paradoxes and vexing philosophical riddles.

For example: Are we, the chosen poephols of Arsenal, on the brink of resurrection and redemption, or are we stuck in purgatory, waiting for Wenger to find a cheap flight to hell? Is Mesut Özil the second coming of Dennis Bergkamp, or is he the umpteenth incarnation of Buddha, come to teach us about the futility of desire?

Also, is Olivier Giroud the fourth donkey of the apocalypse? Also, is Theo Walcott really 28 now … twenty-eight? And if so, how old am I, and how old are you, and has the universe stopped expanding?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do know that I have lost my faith. I barely even watch Arsenal any more. Back in the glory days of the turn of the century, I would occasionally take regular little breaks from the fixture list, skipping the entire League Cup bar the final, for example, or bunking all the dead rubbers against Slovan Bratislava.

Nowadays, I save my mental strength, such as it is, for the big games. But in truth there aren’t any big games any more; instead, there are games against big teams. These big teams see Arsenal as a mid-sized team of talented but soft and overpaid loafers, and the only way to change that perception is to beat them. We don’t.

So Arsenal have become the Nokia or the MySpace of the football ecosystem: a hapless little oxbow lake of a club, filled with a lumpy soup of fond memories.

Of course, this comical fate is not exclusive to Arsenal fans. And it can get much, much worse, as any Moroka Swallows or Newcastle United or Leeds United fan will tell you.

And for a real dose of perspective, consider the trials of the devout Witbank Black Aces fan. How enraging must it be when your club commits suicide and removes itself from the face of the Earth, in exchange for money, before you even get a chance to officially give up on it? That’s like being dumped the day before you were going to do the dumping.

Most teams hardly ever win a trophy; the average club picks up a cup every decade or two. Hence the core business of being a fan is dream deferment, dream management.

For some, the best defence against the endless psychospiritual torture of fandom is to play fantasy football, which gives you a gratifying feeling of agency and control.

But the best defence of all is to step outside and kick a football — even if you only kick it against a wall on your own, when your kids or your parents have gone to bed.

Because football’s real salvatory promise, its secret opiate, can be quietly redeemed by one foot and one ball. Doef, doef, doef.

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