The thing I wasn’t prepared for when I fell into this world of football fandom was how emotional it all is. From the outside, it just looks like little men running around a field, and the distinctions between teams appear entirely arbitrary. But when you choose your own team, when you get attached, you learn the stories that come with each player, and the threads of narrative weave together in deeply emotional ways. So as fans we follow the team, we learn their stories, and we retell them to each other.
When Zeft first started teaching Kaia and I about Premier League football, and the new team we had pledged to support, the first story she told us was the story of Cesc, her favourite player. How he had come from Barcelona to play for Arsenal as a young teenager, and was now one of the best creative midfielders in the world. Even before I knew what a midfielder was, I knew that Cesc was an exceptional one. He had been our youngest ever player on the first team, and youngest goalscorer. He was ours.
In my first year as Arsenal fans, I saw the developing legend of Cesc for myself. I learned to watch the games and to understand them, and it was pretty damn evident that Cesc stepping on to the pitch made a difference, to everyone’s game. Also, he was adorable. Then Arsene Wenger took the captain’s armband off the badly-behaving William Gallas, and Kaia and I shared Zeft’s utter glee that it was presented to Cesc – at only 21 years old, though he was a five year veteran of the team. He was our captain now!
The way football works, and I don’t just mean the media and reportage, but in fandom itself, it’s all about the narrative beats. The story practically told itself: with our new young captain and a new lease of life, we’d regroup our strength and win something, right? Only we didn’t. Cesc was struck down with a knee injury for four months, and the season ended with us barely hanging on to our place in the top four. It was the same story every year – periods of hope that this would be the year that our young, hungry team would fulfil their potential, then injuries and disappointment and a lack of silverware.
Meanwhile, a different story started competing to have Cesc in the middle of it. Barcelona wanted their player back. From their point of view, Arsenal was the big bad team who had swept away their talented youngster. Regardless of his new position as captain, and his long term contract, they mounted a media campaign every summer, telling the world how much they wanted Cesc back. His would be teammates, his family, and even local politicians got into the act. The story of how much Cesc wanted to be back in his old home team was publicly discussed by everyone except the man himself, who was doing his best to respect the team that actually paid his wages.
The longer Arsenal went without winning anything, the harder it was to hold on to our talented wonder boy captain. But at the same time, the idea of letting him go home without having won something as Arsenal captain was just as painful. Each transfer period came and went, and we held on to him (just) because of that promise, because everyone wanted the story of Cesc and Arsenal to end with a triumphant climax, not a whimper.
(except, of course, we told ourselves, if we actually won something, well, he wouldn’t leave after all, would he?)
Last summer, he won the World Cup. He literally kicked the goal that won the final match for Spain. His charming colleagues forced a Barca shirt over his head during the celebrations, just to let the world know who he really belonged to. He almost left then, but our manager Arsene told him, no. We still need you. Give us one more year. So Cesc stayed, for one more year, one last chance. And you know what? We still didn’t win anything.
This was the worst summer. The rumour mill was at its fieriest, and everyone knew he was leaving. But Barcelona stuck to their plan to get him home at the least possible expense to themselves, so they opened negotiations with an insultingly low offer. It dragged on, week after week. Finally, reluctantly, Arsenal let him go on the eve of the new season, for a fraction of what they could have got selling a player of his quality (and with so many years still on contract) on the open market. Cesc went home, and broke our hearts.
There’s nothing more depressing than a story that trails off, none of its threads leading to anything. The season has started, and regardless of how obvious it might have been that he was really going this time, there’s still an aura of shock around our team, and our fans. It’s hard to look forward when we’re still waiting for a narrative pay off that will never come.
And, to be frank, it doesn’t help that the other Cesc story, the one about the wonder boy who left home to play in the Premier League and finally returned to wear Barcelona’s colours alongside his childhood friends, has a brilliant ending. He’s going to win trophies with that team, and become the legendary player that we always knew he was. He gets to be the hero of their story.
Someday, maybe, we can be happy for him. But I for one am not quite evolved enough to let it happen yet. I’m a football fan, after all, as well as being a writer. Neither of us are keen on the idea of waking up to discover that our protagonist is off plotting up a dream in someone else’s novel.