I have always been a soccer fan, but it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that I became a futbol fanatic. Truthfully, I didn’t see it coming but now I can’t imagine life without the beautiful game. Over the weekend, I was nursing the flu and as a result, I ended up lounging around watching a lot of sports on television. I watched Southampton take down Leicester City 1-0. I watched LAFC open its MLS Cup title defense with a 3-2 win against Portland Timbers. I watched Club Tijuana draw at home against Atlas. I watched Liverpool take apart Manchester United 7-0, handing the Red Devils their worst loss in history. I watched every minute plus stoppage time of these games. But it was the Arsenal vs Bournemouth match that made my weekend special. Let me explain.
Arsenal is my club. It has been 20 years since the Gunners last won the English Premier League (EPL) title, and this season despite being the youngest team in the top flight they have been at the top of the table most of the year and prior to Saturday’s home match against bottom-of-the-table Bournemouth they sat two points ahead of second-place Manchester City (a team that is clearly better than Arsenal…but hey…scoreboard). With 20 teams in the top flight, a home match against Bournemouth should have been a gimme. But that’s why the EPL is the best league in the world — week in and week out there are no gimmes. But yeah, Arsenal shouldn’t have had any issues dispatching the Cherries (yeah, I know, so frigging British).
Imagine then how me and 60,000 or so rabid Gooners felt when the Cherries scored nine seconds into the match. It was off the opening kick, and it turns out it was the second-fastest goal in the history of the league. 0-1 Bournemouth. Then in the 22nd minute, our new signing Trossard went off with a leg injury.
Then things got worse. Thirteen minutes into the second half Bournemouth scored again to go up 0-2. Were we going to lose to the worst team in the league? Really? Despite possessing the ball 80 percent of the time, we couldn’t muster a goal.
Then the tide shifted. We got one back in the 62nd minute. Eight minutes later defender Ben White scored the equalizer. Somehow we managed to battle back and at least salvage a critical point rather than dropping three. And then over the last 20 minutes of the match with most of the possession, we had chance after chance to grab the winner but time was ticking away. When we reached the 90-minute mark, we were thankful for the point. But with plenty of injuries and video reviews the refs added 7 minutes of stoppage time…there was still hope. We kept pushing and pushing but nothing. 97 minutes came and went, and then the soccer gods gave us one last chance before the final whistle, as 23-year-old substitute Reiss Nelson, who had come on in the 70th minute to provide something different, took hold of a corner kick and smashed home a left-footed winner for the biggest goal of his life to secure the three points and put us five points clear of Man City at the top of the table and send Emirates Stadium into bedlam. Exhale.
And this is an example of why soccer is the best sport on the planet and the most popular sport in the world. I don’t care if you think soccer is boring — that’s a sad American-led trope brought to you by people who have never given the game a chance. I can tell you this, the 10 million Americans who attended MLS matches last year don’t think soccer is dull. And the $3 billion NBC pays for the rights to broadcast the EPL in America suggests they know what’s going on. Broadcast rights for the 2026 World Cup are going to go for close to $6 billion. To quote Deep Throat, Follow the Money. Futbol is the biggest sport in the world.
The story of how I ended up such a huge soccer fan is strange. As a kid I never played soccer, but I did attend professional games in support of my hometown San Diego Sockers, first when they were in the old North American Soccer League and then as one of the best indoor soccer teams ever. In college I covered the men’s team for the school newspaper, so I knew the rules really well. But outside of the World Cup it was hard to follow any European or South American leagues. That all changed about 20 years ago when cable started carrying EPL matches and then some German and Spanish league matches as well. But I didn’t know the first thing about major club soccer, and the only decent league in the U.S. didn’t have a team here in Phoenix — and still doesn’t.
But a few things happened around that time that conspired to get me hooked. First, I saw French international Thierry Henry play in the World Cup and was immediately transfixed. France won the 1998 World Cup and Henry was brilliant, and then I watched him again four years later. I started watching a few EPL matches on television and began to feel like I was missing out on something special. The speed of the game, the songs of the fans, and the excitement of the whole ordeal astounded me. I needed to find a team to cheer for. Around that same time, I read British Author Nick Hornby’s book about his love of Arsenal Football Club called Fever Pitch. That book, plus Henry playing for Arsenal, gave me my team. I was going to be an American Gooner.
The rest as they say is history. And while Arsenal hasn’t won many trophies since I started cheering them on, they have fully captured my heart. These days I hardly miss a match, often getting up early on a weekend morning to catch a match on Peacock Plus. A few years ago on my first trip to the U.K. it was during the offseason so I couldn’t see them play live, but we did tour Emirates and I have some stellar photos of me down on the pitch and in the dressing room.
Once your club is in your blood there’s no going back. Over the years the Gunners have sold my favorite players, languished mid-table, lost out on Champions League play, and generally played unlike one of the top teams in the best league in the world. All that seems to be changing now that former player Mikel Arteta is in charge and the youth movement has been underway. And now, ahead of schedule, they are clearly among the top teams in the EPL and have a legit shot at the league title and most definitely should qualify for Champions League. All is good in North London, though it has been a rough 20 years so the optimism is cautious.
These days my favorite player is 20-year-old home-grown wunderkind Bukayo Saka who plays on the wing and shows no fear playing against men much older than him. We have a great core of young players, we pass the ball as well as any team in the world, and have a brilliant midfielder in Martin Ødegaard who is quickly becoming one of the best offensive midfielders in the world and captains the Gunners at the ripe old age of 24. The future looks bright for Arsenal Football Club and the future is now.
So yeah, I love soccer with a passion I never could have predicted. And Saturday’s comeback win against Bournemouth just might have been the final piece needed to propel us to the title. It’s a long way from summer nights at Jack Murphy Stadium in the late 1970s. Come on You Gunners!