I have a problem.
I know what a successful club looks like. The trophies, the glory, the squad full of killers capable of blowing you away 7-0 or grinding out the jammiest three points. I’ve seen it, and it refuses to move me. The tyrannical giant clubs such as your Man Citys and Bayerns impress me in a clinical way. I intellectually understand that what they do is amazing, borderline superhuman, but there is nothing that inspires genuine emotion in me.
My soul carries the burden of this attraction to a specific type of club. Their perception is fractured, their promise is endless but their output is frustratingly small. While there is so much to love, their achievements never line up with the accepted definition of success. These are clubs defined by the word ‘almost.’
Arsenal Always Try To Walk It In
Being an Arsenal fan can feel like being put under some kind of conditioning experiment. How much can we build and destroy this man’s spirit before his perception of football is completely broken? It took 12 years of being on this earth and about 5 years of being aware of what football actually was. I sat in front of the 2010 World Cup a pre-teen already littered with grey hairs painted on me by the likes of Denilson and Alex Song, and I fell in love with my first non-Arsenal side – the Dutch runners up.
I believe my Arsenal fandom left me predisposed to this affair. Someone my age who didn’t have the long-term memory of a potato could probably just about remember the glory years where we actually won things, but alas I was preoccupied by an attempt to learn the names of all the dinosaurs. My passion for football heightened in the late 00s meaning my footballing education was shaped by Wenger’s small-sized tiki-taka masterworks.
I found them mesmerising, and I still do. This was an era of Premier League football which was rough around the edges in a tactical sense, in comparison to the minute obsessions of today’s game. Within that landscape, Arsenal’s control and grace felt at once lightyears ahead and fundamental to the DNA of the game. My love has only grown for them in hindsight. Me, one man, using everyone else’s frustration at the lack of trophies as a reason to love the team more.
But there’s a romanticism to it, is there not? This team, crystallised in history, forever an example of exalted football but forever lacking the cynicism that brings material success. A fatal flaw which defines their tragedy, but I would not want it any other way. I love the fact that Wenger was so committed to his principles that it caused the destruction of everything he wanted to build at Arsenal. I find it poetic, which brings me back to my first point:
I have a problem.
Main Character Syndrome
In a similar way, the 2010 Dutch team has aged like wine in my brain. Many remember them as the victims of a Spanish tidal wave which dominated football during the decade. I remember them with the added context I have learned since, about Total Football, about how this country pioneered what we define as beauty in the modern game, how this tournament was almost a prophecy fulfilled. Almost.
I have always seen Total Football as this idea of purity. Winning through morality and maximising beauty over all else. The fingerprints of this philosophy bless the field in almost every modern game of football, in both abstract intent and tactical execution. Yet, the country that originated this revolutionary idea has never seen the success that warrants their influence. It’s terrible. It’s beautiful.
One may think that I’m attracted to tragedy, but I don’t think so. My obsession comes from the development of a compelling narrative. Perfection and constant success is at the centre of no good story. Great protagonists are deeply flawed people with great intentions, the person who may never win but the one you always hope will.
Translating that into a football lens explains my continued, at times begrudging support of Arsenal, my affection for any iteration of the Dutch national team, despite never having stepped foot in the country, and my recently renewed support of Borussia Dortmund. Despite winning the Pokal, last season’s Dortmund side is a classic case of missed opportunity and unfulfilled potential. In a season in which Bayern’s imperial reign over the Bundesliga seemed vulnerable, a side full of the best young talent in the world should have put up more of a fight. Yet, tragedy always has a cold sense of inevitability. It seems like Bayern are destined to define German football, the way that Spain were destined to dominate the world at Holland’s expense. In real time we’re witnessing the squad stripped of its most fundamental assets, leaving Dortmund with another rebuilding job.
What ties these teams together is something of an inability to grow up, the children of the world game who, while frustrating, embody that exact word, ‘game.’ Obsession with trophy-clad teams inspires an image of football as a business, the adult plainness of getting from A to B, crushing the idea of growth and competition for the sake of homogeneity. These ‘almost’ clubs represent the imperfect, fun sport it was designed to be, they are the antidote to modern football which is used so often as a cash cow and a political tool. Life as an ‘almost’ fan is challenging, angering, elating and joyous to the most extreme, a range of emotion that not every fan gets to feel.
If a team is all-conquering, they have nowhere to go. But this is football, the show must go on, we need an arc to invest in and I find that in these teams who continually find themselves bumping up against a glass ceiling, despite doing all the things necessary to succeed…
Did I just describe myself?
I guess I really have a problem.
I’m realising that I don’t process the world in the same way as other people. Other people don’t look to plaster their experience onto the arcs of football teams, because they are sane. But shit, it brings me comfort. For all the relatable flaws that these teams have, they’re still adored, and they still hold the eternal spring of hope.
It’s a lofty, corny, and ironically unrelatable idea, but the relatability of a team matters to me. That word was used to describe England’s Euro 2020 squad as it pertained to their political awareness, a brand of relatability which I believe is universally vital. But I’m speaking to something more fundamental, something about a team that matches your self perception, your self love and your frustrations. It’s an all-or-nothing way of life, where the effect of every win and loss is doubled. It’s a fearful way of life, these teams aren’t fictional characters for whom someone has crafted the perfect ending. It’s sport, it’s random and endless.
Of course, I probably won’t relate to these ‘almost’ teams forever. Age seems to beget cynicism, a more advanced version of me may have grown out of this obsession with flaws and may look back on the current Man City side as one of history’s greatest achievements. But I will always want to hold late 2000s Arsenal, 2010 Holland and 2020 Borussia Dortmund, these teams stuck in adolescence, as the symbols of the gleeful, nonsensical stupidity of my youth.