Sunday, May 19, 2024

Second. Best.


Arsenal Manager, Mikel Arteta, on Miracles

Sunday, 19th May, 2024, 16:00 hrs. Indian Standard Time

I am firmly on the spectator side of sports. The physical co-ordination required to direct a bat/ball/racquet like entity while simultaneously twisting/running/jumping has always eluded me. Never particularly angry/frustrated at the player(s) when my chosen player/team fails to win, I know that however poorly they played, they were better than I would have been in the same situation.

Good thing then that I support Arsenal. A North London football club in the Premier League, they seem to float among the elite names of the footballing world without quite making it. In a few hours time, 10 months of an amazing football season by the club is (probably) going to end without a trophy.  Much to the joy of fellow armchair fans of more 'winning-est' clubs, not for the first time. 

Isn't sport, playing or watching, all about winning? A mostly controlled experience of sharpening that competitive edge without slashing around wildly? Looking around, the evidence seems to point in that direction. Unlike me, there are many for whom the primary return from the investment of watching 'their team' on TV is the second-hand joy of their victory or the venting of unfiltered frustrations at their loss.

I make no claims to be completely above such feelings. I cannot recommend losing or mediocrity. At this point, if my total time sunk into watching and cheering for Arsenal were a person, he would be above the legal drinking age of 21 - with only one major season-end occasion for cheer in all that while. I WANT them to win and their success IS my success in that magic mix of marketing, circumstance and choice which professional sport leagues around the world thrive on.

But somewhere tied in with my inability to stitch a series of good passes together is a philosophical acceptance that such is the nature of sport. I feel that sport is a wonderful stand-in for life, where bravery, rising to the occasion and comebacks from the edge of disaster feature frequently but it is important to acknowledge that it is still only a stand-in. While the sportsperson has the additional responsibility of making fans happy or face their judgement in a public arena while in pursuit of personal dreams, being seen and cheered is part of the draw in today's age.

In a near perfect season from August 2023, this young Arsenal team has solidly glided and gritted its way through only to be bettered by the finest of margins by an even better Manchester City team. Arsenal's current manager Mikel Arteta is upbeat and cheerful even now because he knows that in a game where 22 well-trained professionals duel with a sphere, space and gravity, certainties and miracles co-exist. As a distant observer whose only effort is in watching, if the guy in the midst of it all can take it in his stride, so can I.

In real life, the race targets and prizes may vary but we must all run. Sports competitions offer a low(er) consequence re-run of the same. There are rules and limitations aplenty - heroes, villains, fate and redemption. The smoothness of Arsenal's play in the Arsene Wenger years had drawn me in and though the glimpses of genius have been few and far between since, they have been enough for me. As my life and career ran along in parallel streams and eddies, the constant grace of this footballing team gave me a useful alter-ego.

I watch and cheer for this team, drawing on memories of Bergkamp and Henry, sympathizing with Fabregas and Ozil and wishing the best for Saka and Rice with the smile of the art professor Wenger floating all through. In the end, sports offers an infinite sea of stories with their own trajectories. There is no right story or wrong story, only a highly subjective 'your story' where the personal maps with the unscripted nature of the playing arena, projecting meaning and inspiration. In picking Arsenal's story, through all its glorious uncertainties and glimmers of hope, I have picked mine.


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