Since as far back as I can remember, Arsenal has been my team. The team that I would get butterflies in my stomach for before matches, the team that I would find myself whole-heartedly arguing with others in support of, the team that could leave me both endlessly smiling in victory, or absolutely distraught in the face of defeat. Even though being an Arsenal fan has not always been easy, it has never even crossed my mind to support anyone else. As a fan, I take pride in my loyalty… in sticking with my team through the ups and downs (even though for the past few years the downs have by far outweighed the ups). And at the same time, I think that I’ve always had an expectation that the loyalty of fans was mirrored too in the loyalty of players to their teams.
Looking back now, I know that the reason why I became an Arsenal fan was for one wonderful reason: Thierry Henry. He became the symbol of Arsenal for me. Wearing the number 14 on his back, always playing with his cool, calm, collected manner, he became that one player that defined the team for me. Whenever I watched Arsenal play, I waited in great anticipation for another unforgettable Thierry Henry moment. His artistry and finesse never ceased to amaze me.
I still remember the day the official announcement came; Thierry Henry was leaving Arsenal. I had spent months in denial of this fact, all the rumours flying around me I had consciously swept aside; Henry couldn’t leave Arsenal! But sadly, it was true. I was comforted though by one fact, Henry would be leaving Arsenal for Barcelona; a team that I had always admired and, in my mind, would be the only acceptable team to transfer to. Another thought continued to plague me though, Thierry Henry was and still is my ultimate hero and I still love to watch him play, but when he moved from Arsenal, I knew he couldn’t come back to the Premier League to play for another team. In my mind, that was an impossibility, it would be the ultimate slap in the face for all Arsenal fans. Imagine he had come back and played for Manchester United?! The ultimate rival of Arsenal. How would I have reacted?
The reason why I bring this up is because I recently read an article in the news about Steven Defour, a Belgian soccer player. Defour used to play for Standard Liege, after which he transferred into another league, only to come back to Belgium and play for Standard’s biggest rivals; Anderlecht. The derby between Anderlecht and Standard, that has always been a heated affair, became even more dramatic when the fans of Defour’s former team (Standard) displayed a banner which, accompanied by the words “Red or Dead”, displayed an image of a man in a mask holding the decapitated head of the now Anderlecht midfielder, Steven Defour. The fans message was clear: now that Defour was no longer playing in the red of Standard, he was a dead man to them. He had been disloyal. The violence of the image and the hostility of the crowd towards Defour quickly brought both the fans and players in heated turmoil and the match was a horror show. Defour, out of what I can only imagine was deep frustration, kicked the ball into the crowd twice, and was ultimately sent off the field with a red card.
The Belgian FA and many Belgian politicians spoke up against the appalling banner and the raucous fan base, saying it was a shame that such a historical match was being disgraced in this way. I have to say that I agree with them. As much as I think that loyalty is incredibly important to the game, I 100% draw the line when the anger of fans no longer allows the game to be played as it should be. I try to put myself in the Standard fans shoes, and imagine what it would have been like had Henry returned to the EPL to play for Manchester United. I know that I would have been horrified, even angered. I would have been frustrated that Henry had made that decision. I can even imagine that I would have found it disrespectful to us as fans of Arsenal, but I would never have gone so far as to boo him off the field, or stop the game from being played.
It can be incredibly hard as a fan to remove your own emotions from the game though. Once you’re a fan, you’re a fan for life, and ultimately the decisions that the team and the players make, impact you. They toy with your emotions and make you question their decisions and the thought processes that must have been behind them. I think that players do have a responsibility to their fans, just as fans have a responsibility to the players and their team. Loyalty means a lot to fans, and it comes to speak to the integrity of the player too in a sense. However, I think that no matter which team players decide to play for, we as fans must always show our respect for the game, and allow it to be played.