"What does the evil son say? He says: what does this match mean to you? To you, and not to himâ€¦thus you shall blunt his teethâ€¦"
Well - my teeth are sharper than ever. I went, I watched, I thoroughly enjoyed the occasion and felt privileged to have been there - but it still didn't detract from how I feel about football fans.
I want to start with a comment that I heard at the end, as we were walking out, from a disgruntled and disheartened Arsenal fan after we'd lost - "Well, that was a waste of a thousand pounds, wasn't it?" How wrong he was, and how misguided. If the only reason he'd spent close to his month's wages on the game was in order to see his team win, then yeah - he hadn't got his money's worth. If, as I did, he'd spent an extortionate wad of cash to be there, to be a part of a thrilling twenty-four hour carnival, then the score really didn't matter. I was probably the only person I knew who walked out of that ground satisfied - of course I'd rather Arsenal had won, but as a feast of football, I could hardly have asked for more from the tripâ€¦
I stayed up all night on Tuesday so that I wouldn't miss my lift to the airport from Rafi at four in the morning. We met at Tzomet Oranim and glided down empty streets to Ben Gurion, passing the pre-requisite horror smash on the motorway halfway into the drive. Rafi was clad in an away shirt, and I wished that I'd worn one too so as to benefit from the same attention he was receiving. From security guards to airport cleaners, everyone had an encouraging word to say to him about Arsenal's chances, and I had to be content with basking in his reflected glory as a fellow-attendee.
We flew to Paris via Larnaca, and during the stopover there we met a handful of other fans also on their way to the match. The first, an East London born olah, was decked out in shirt, scarf and other paraphernalia - and turned out to be the epitome of a die-hard Gooner. She and Rafi got stuck into team selection, injury news, etc with relish - I listened to them with one ear, to my iPod with the other. Then we met two Israeli youths - one clad in an Arsenal shirt, one in a Barcelona top - a strange combination, I thought, but they were evidently best friends and no rivalry appeared to exist between them. They turned out to be on an army-sanctioned two day trip to the final, though neither had match tickets and they were hoping to find a pair from a tout near the ground. To this end they had two thousand euros between them - so they obviously weren't badly off by Israeli standards, though they thought that the prices being bandied about were astronomical compared with what they'd imagined back home. We chatted a bit between ourselves, then boarded the plane for Paris.
We hit the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle, and now there was a real buzz amongst my fellow supporters - our numbers had swollen somewhat in Cyprus, where some more Arsenal fans had appeared, and the excitement was palpable. Rafi covered up his kipa at this point with an Arsenal hat - he told me it wasn't worth the aggro to sport his kipa any longer, and I concurred. Having said that, I liked his explanation that teaming a kipa with an Arsenal shirt made the statement that orthodoxy and the "real world" can be mixed - but the average beer-swilling, racist football fan might not have been inclined to share that sentiment.
At the train station, we joined the massive queue for Metro tickets, at which point one of the Israeli boys pulled out of his bag a spare Arsenal shirt and gave it to me, asking only that I return it on the flight home. I was delighted - I changed tops and changed persona with it - for the rest of the trip, I decided, I'd cast aside my reservations about football fans and just play along with it for the duration. That meant bringing my old wide-boy, cockney accent out of hibernation - I dropped my Hs with wanton abandon and adopted the vernacular of those around me. And those around me were by now all English, and very up for the match. Chanting started on the train, sporadically at first, but by the time we alighted at Gare du Nord, it felt like we were already in the stadium.
Evidently the first Arsenal fan to disembark at the station had looked over the road, spotted a pub, and thought it was as good a place as any to start the festivities. By the time we arrived, traffic had been brought to a standstill, as close to three thousand drunk Londoners thronged the streets and sang their hearts out. The police gazed on reverentially, and Rafi and I headed into the thick of it to join in. After a while, I went off to meet some of my friends and Rafi did likewise. My lot were in the Place de la Concorde, about two miles away, but in the event it took half an hour to drive there through the clogged Parisian streets.
"Fifty euros, fixed price" proclaimed my driver as I got in - well, I haven't spent two years arguing with Israeli cabbies for nothing, so in the end I got him down to a more palatable - but still inflated - thirty euros. He and I conversed in French - I asked him about the area we were in and he launched into a monologue about the African immigrants who were resident here in North Paris. He turned out to be Moroccan himself, but that didn't prevent him sounding like a nationalist bigot when slating the Algerians who were "bringing the neighbourhood down." At my request, he hooted his horn whenever we passed a group of Barca fans - all of whom good-naturedly shouted back in Spanish. This was to be the case throughout the trip - extremely good relations between the opposing sets of supporters, a far cry from the pointless and violent exchanges at most domestic English games.
I met Steve outside the Hotel de Crillon, where - for the next hour and a half - we waited, in vain, for the Arsenal team to emerge. We were crushed behind barriers as the police herded us around, but for Steve that was no problem. "Five more minutes, Seth, then we'll go" was his constant refrain - and that of those around us. We met people desperate for a glimpse of the players, dying to get a shirt signed for their kids, or a photo to show off to their mates. Eventually Steve realised we'd be late for the game if we hung around any longer, so we went to meet the others for a drink near the station. I grabbed a couple of bagels - my first meal of the day - and we sat and had a beer in a fairly cosmopolitan square. I say fairly, as it was made up of an eclectic mix of rowdy Arsenal fans and bemused French locals - but by the time we left, even some of the French were joining in the singing.
We descended into the Metro station, where you could feel the electricity in the air. It was seven o'clock, under two hours until kick-off, and the Paris rush hour crowd knew all about it. The stations and the trains were packed, we were singing non-stop, I even started a chant for the first time in my life (the easy "We're the North Bankâ€¦" number, which was picked up on quickly by those on my carriage). It carried on in this vein for the rest of the journey, the only momentary silence coming when a huge guy with two bottles of beer in each hand shouted to us all to "Shut up everyone - my five year old's on the phoneâ€¦'Allo Archie, gorgeous, 'ow you doing? Aaah - did ya hear that - he said good luck Arsenal." Father-son bonding over with, the choir was allowed to continue.
When we reached the stadium, the volume had reached fever pitch. Now we were amongst a hundred thousand fans, both Arsenal and Barcelona, and the mood was jubilant. With an hour or so to kick-off it was still light, and no one was in a rush to go and sit down. Instead we all milled around outside, drinking beer and watching sympathetically as people ran around searching for touts and tickets. The police, who were decked out in full riot gear, were actually particularly relaxed, and the only sign of trouble came when the Arsenal team bus drove past and everyone surged forward and tried to mob it. I eventually left the others and headed for Block S, where I was sitting, and went and met my Dad's mates pitchside.
It really was pitchside, as we were sitting in the front row of the lower tier - an exotic location for me, as I'm usually in row one of the North Upper. I found my seat - the others weren't there yet - and acclimatized myself to being so close to the turf. The players were literally within spitting distance as they warmed up, and it was breathtaking to be so close to such stars as TH, Ronaldinho and Eto'o.
After five minutes, a group of French boys appeared and one of them wanted my seat - I'd managed to misread my ticket and was a block away from where I should be. I moved down, and found all of my crew already there - we chatted away, until I saw an old Noam friend of mine three seats to my left. This was the case for the rest of the evening - our block was full of Norrice Lea faces, all of whom were pretty nonchalant about meeting each other here - after all, they expected no less in the best seats in the house. The boy next to me, a son of my Dad's friend, promised to help me drape the Betar flag I'd brought with me over the side of the advertising hoardings - but the stewards had other ideas. Shame, cos that would have got us on Israeli TV for certain.
The atmosphere was electric, reaching a crescendo as the players made their way back out for the opening ceremony. The match started, Arsenal started strongly, all was well for eighteen minutes, and then... Lehmann, our decent but temperamental goalkeeper, came flying out of his area, upended Eto'o and got sent off. A nightmare scenario - and those around me were either shocked speechless or close to tears. Beating Barcelona with eleven men was always going to be hard, but with ten - well, people were already writing off our chances there and then.
But then - unbelievably - Campbell headed us into the lead ten minutes before half time - and our side of the stadium erupted. It was absolute pandemonium, screaming and dancing, unbridled joy on thirty thousand faces. Even I, the self-proclaimed skeptic, couldn't help but join in the celebrations - and they lasted deep into the second half.
The heavens opened at half time, and the night began to look ominous - Barcelona fans were in full flow, as though they knew their team had it in them to fight back. But with quarter of an hour to go, it looked as though the impossible might just happen - the team was defending frantically and doing just enough to hold on. Thierry even looked like scoring a second - he found himself one-on-one with the keeper, but missed - unbelievably, for someone of his calibre. That gave Barca fresh hope and they pushed on and pushed on until - bang - within five minutes they'd performed a perfect smash and grab raid, scoring twice and effectively ending Arsenal's dreams. It was all over now, with the wind gone out of Arsenal's sails for the final ten minutes. There were real tears now as the fans heard the final whistle, and watched the delirious Barcelona fans celebrate their victory. Bright red flares - synonymous with Barcelona's passionate supporters - were lit, drums beaten, and their voices drowned out the Arsenal end's half-hearted singing for their own defeated team.
We stayed to watch them lift the trophy - it would have been churlish not to - and then trooped out into the rain. In truth, no one had much to berate the team for, except for Lehmann's unnecessary moment of madness. (One man, who lashed out like a wounded animal, screamed to Henry "why don't you f*** off to Barcelona then if you don't care about Arsenal?" - perhaps TH heard, since two days later he signed a new four year contract with the Gunners, against most people's expectations). We all knew Arsenal had done more than well by getting to the final in the first place, so the mood was more one of "if onlyâ€¦" than "we was robbed." For my part, it had been almost hallucinatory, seeing Arsenal transposed into the surround of the Champions League final - plus I really wasn't all that bothered about the result. I was more depressed by the fact that the whole event was now over and it was back to the mundane from here on in - trekking to the Metro, then to the airport to wait for my flight home.
Save for trying to locate Rafi, I was all alone now - as all of my London mates were getting the two am flight back to England - so I knocked about Paris for a while, before meeting a St Lucian Arsenal fan and another from Warrington. We hung about on the streets together for a while, then got a cab to the airport. It was all so different from how it would have been had Arsenal won - the streets would have been packed with jubilant supporters, getting drunk and merry all night long. The Barcelona fans that we saw looked happy enough, but the Spanish evidently aren't from the same hard-drinking camp that the English are, so they were more sedate with their celebrations.
It was four o'clock when we reached the airport and it didn't seem worth spending money on a hotel with my flight just over ten hours away, so I slept on an airport couch until noon. We regrouped, us Israeli Gooners, and travelled back to Ben Gurion - feeling down, but by no means out. I gave back the boy's shirt - they'd managed to get tickets in the end for a thousand euros each, so they were happy at least - if anything, they were like me - they were there for the game, and it was of no real consequence to them who won or lost.
And, to go back to my more acerbic and, apparently, unlovable self - that's the point really. I had a great time in spite of Arsenal's defeat because I know that football isn't everything - which might sound flippant, but -once you've seen the way some of the fans in the ground were treating the match - isn't really that clear to everyone. Yes - I felt something really special when I was part of the seething, writhing, thirty-thousand-strong body of Arsenal fans in the stadium. Yes - I exploded with (short term) joy when Campbell put us in the lead. But I walked out of that ground feeling no more unhappy than when I'd walked in. There're too many more important things in the world than football - ninety minutes plus an hour or so to get over a defeat - OK. To gnash one's teeth and wail forevermore about what might have been - no way. This lot need to get out more, to get stuck into something more beneficial to the world around them. As for me - I'll be at the opera.
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