Monday, 3 August 2009


With a week to go until the Football League kicks off and the curtain-raising spectacle of the Community Shield rears its head, things are starting to look decidedly, and pleasantly, more football-y around here.

I was at the always-impressive Emirates Stadium on Saturday for the first day of the annual Emirates Cup tournament, featuring Arsenal, Rangers, PSG and Atletico Madrid – and in many ways it felt like the season had begun. Despite the fact that these games were ostensibly friendlies (though the Emirates Cup guys having created a mini-league system that awards extra points for scoring more goals gave the event an air of genuine competition), to suggest that the home crowd wouldn’t have been bothered if the result had gone against them, (it didn’t), would be ridiculous.

The Emirates is a well-spaced out and almost cavernous stadium, but the 54,000-strong crowd were in fine voice – even providing a self-consciously Wimbledon-style round of Mexican waves during the more attritional moments against Atletico (hey, it’s the summer – be thankful that at least the Barmy Army are busy).

The travelling Rangers fans were also, for the first game, in boisterous mood and were easily shouting down the rest of the crowd throughout their match – it’s just a shame that most of them left before Arsenal took the field. While a good chunk of them probably lived in London, the fact that a significant proportion almost certainly did make the journey down from Glasgow dashes any dismissal of the Emirates Cup or tournaments like it as “meaningless friendlies”. Far from it. Football always means something.

The most important thing to remember about pre-season tournaments, (a fact that a lot of the press seem to miss, too – probably because they don’t pay for their tickets) is that the reduced price and relatively family-friendly atmosphere of the events gives many fans their only opportunity to see their teams live. The vast majority of supporters of, in particular, big-four Premier League teams, aren’t wealthy season ticket-holders or the kind of maniacs who spend every penny of their wages on following their team home and away. Most simply can’t afford £50-60 for a Premier League game, and in general would baulk at the idea of spending that sort of cash when you might not even see anything good (this is probably there aren’t many West End theatres that put on shows without a script). A dire 0-0 draw is a disappointment even if the only money you’ve spent to watch it is the price of three pints of Kronenbourg and a packet of nuts.

Therefore, once or twice a year there’ll be an opportunity for the fans – and they’re no less real because they’re not in the stands every weekend – to get to see their team, feel what it’s like to be in the stadium and cheer on their favourites. Whether it’s a pre-season game, Champions League qualifier, Carling Cup match (the same also applies to international friendlies), you’re more likely to find the “real” fans at these games. I sometimes shudder at the idea of big-four Premiership games full of businessmen there on complimentary VIP tickets, having decided to take their clients to the nearest “entertainment venue” to stage a white-wine-and-smoked-salmon-sandwich meeting while the football takes place in the background. Oh, and then leave at half-time and find out the final score on their Blackberry on the way home. Of course, I’d go if I could afford it – but until then I’ll be in the pub.


The below picture, though pretty poor quality, was taken at the Emirates during the minute’s applause for Sir Bobby Robson. I saw the footage again the other night from when he was presented his lifetime achievement award at the Sports Personality of the Year Award in 2007 – and found myself genuinely welling up for the guy. A good man and a great reference point for how great football people can be. RIP.

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