Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bush to Blame for Henry Leaving Arsenal ... In a Way

Gerald (Tom Wilkinson): One, two, three-- No! No! No! Jesus Christ! All I want to do is get you in a straight bloody line! What do I have to do?
Horse (Paul Barber): It's the Arsenal off-side trap, isn't it?
Gerald: The what?
Horse: The Arsenal off-side trap. Lomper here is Tony Adams, right? Any bugger looks like scoring... we all step forward in a line ...
- The guys learning their dance routine in the 1997 film "The Full Monty," written by Simon Beaufoy

Most Americans reading the headline of this article will assume "Henry" is someone's first name, like, say, home run king (steroids-free division) Henry Aaron, while "Arsenal" refers to a storage of arms in a third world country like Iraq, North Korea or Crawford, Texas.

In fact, the "Henry" of the headline is French soccer superstar Thierry Henry (pronounced "ON-ree"), and "Arsenal" is the North London-based club for whom he has played for the last eight seasons. Arsenal was mentioned in the film "The Full Monty" (see the quote above). And, more importantly, Arsenal is the team I have supported since I started watching English football (soccer) in 1998.

(How did I choose Arsenal? I'll tell the story at the end of this article.)

Now that the nomenclature is set, am I really saying that President George W. Bush is responsible for Henry's decision to leave Arsenal for Barcelona of the Spanish Primera Liga? Yes. Am I exaggerating? Well, yes. But, there is a kernel of truth in my statement.

A brief history lesson is in order. England's Premier League is the most lucrative and, arguably, best soccer league in the world (for those of you who are fans of Spanish or Italian football, your leagues have equal right to make that claim). As money has found its way into English football over the last ten years or so, businessmen from other countries have been attracted to buying English soccer teams. This has resulted in three of England's top four teams being purchased by foreigners, first when Russian oil magnate Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea before the 2003-2004 season, and later when American Malcolm Glazer bought Manchester United (think the Yankees of English football) and American Tom Hicks and Canadian George Gillett (both NHL owners) teamed up to buy Liverpool (think the Dodgers of English football). That left Arsenal, controlled by a "veddy English" board of directors chaired by Peter Hill-Wood (it wasn't enough for him to have one traditional English last name, he needed two), as the last English-owned team in the "big four."

After buying Chelsea, Abramovich went on a shopping spree for players that made the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox look like the Pirates, Devil Rays and Marlins. Unlike in U.S. sports, European soccer teams buy the rights to players from each other, sometimes for crazy sums of money. The poster child for this excess was Ukraine and AC Milan striker Andrei Shevchenko, for whom Chelsea paid 30 million pounds (just under $60 million) before last season. Glazer and the Hicks/Gillett partnership also provided big money to their managers for player purchases.

Arsenal, while a wealthy team compared with most of the other teams in the English Premier League, does not have the resources of its "big four" rivals to splash out crazy amounts of money for stars. Instead, the Gunners (think the Braves of English football) rely on the smart talent evaluation of their French manager, Arsene Wenger, who has been at the helm of the club since 1996. One of Wenger's early and smartest moves was to sign Thierry Henry, a player he coached while the manager of Monaco who was floundering on the bench of the powerful Italian club Juventus. Wenger changed Henry's position from winger to striker (kind of like moving a number-two hitter to the clean-up spot in the batting order), and Henry developed into one of the top players in the world. Under Wenger's stewardship, Arsenal has won three Premier League titles (I guess the Braves comparison ends there) and three FA Cups (a major English tournament played throughout the season). Only Manchester United has won more league titles during that time.

But the football environment was changing, a fact not lost on Arsenal vice chairman David Dein, the football brains on the Arsenal board and the man who brought Wenger to North London. A season after Abramovich bought Chelsea, the Blues reeled off back-to-back Premier League titles. This year, Manchester United won the crown with Chelsea placing second. Meanwhile Arsenal, which had won the 2003-2004 title by going the entire season without losing a game (26 wins, 12 draws and no defeats), had been reduced to back-to-back fourth place finishes. In fact, in the 2005-2006 season, Arsenal needed a win on the last week of the season, combined with a food poisoning-induced loss by their arch rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, to sneak into the all-important fourth place position (the top four teams in England are invited to compete in the lucrative Champions League European competition the following season). In other words, two years after a perfect season, Arsenal was a plate of bad seafood away from the financial and reputational hit of missing out on the top European competition.

More importantly, as Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool made big splashes in the player transfer market, Arsenal watched many of their veteran players depart for greener pastures (financially, not better kept fields), filling in with young, promising, but inexperienced players. Miraculously, Wenger guided the baby Gunners, loaded with players in their early 20s, to the Champions League final in 2006, where they nearly pulled off an amazing upset of Barcelona, even though they played most of the game with one fewer player than their opponents after their goalkeeper was ejected for a foul early in the contest (the new keeper saved the ensuing penalty, and Arsenal scored first, only to surrender two late goals as the players tired).

But Dein knew that Arsenal's miraculous run was an aberration, and that for Arsenal to keep from slipping permanently behind Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, he needed to take action. He had guided the move to a larger stadium, which would net the club an estimated 20 million additional pounds a year, but Dein knew that Arsenal needed a deep-pocketed owner to compete. As a result, he embraced the interest of American billionaire Stan Kroenke, husband of a Wal-Mart heir and owner of the NBA's Denver Nuggets, NHL's Colorado Avalanche and MLS's Colorado Rapids. Kroenke purchased a 12 percent stake in Arsenal in April, but instead of congratulating Dein for his foresight, the Arsenal board freaked out, forced Dein from the board, and signed a pledge that board members (who owned nearly 50 percent of the club) would not sell their shares for a year, all but scuttling a Kroenke takeover.

Hill-Wood was quite clear in his feelings about Kroenke: "Call me old fashioned, but we don't need his money and we don't need his sort" (you can see the quote in this Daily Mail article). This was not an owner making a business judgment. The "his sort" comment said it all. This was a very English gentleman expressing his outrage that a, gulp, common American might own his beloved Arsenal.

Which brings us to my original point, that it's Bush's fault that Henry left Arsenal. Wealthy Englishmen didn't need help from Bush to view Americans as boorish, but Bush's policies have not exactly endeared the U.S. to the rest of the world. While Bill Clinton put a friendly face on the U.S. and was embraced when he traveled abroad, in most European countries, Bush is reviled as a go-it-alone, mentally-challenged, religiously fanatic, imperialistic, war-happy, cowboy president. Had an American tried to buy Arsenal in 1996, I'm sure there would have been substantial resistance. But, I have no doubt that Bush's assassination of the U.S.'s foreign reputation added to the anti-American feelings generated by Kroenke's interest in the Gunners.

After all, while the Manchester United fans rioted when Glazer made his interest in the Red Devils known (the club was publicly traded, and Glazer took them private), in the wake of United's subsequent success, there was hardly a peep of protest when the North American owners took over at Aston Villa and Liverpool. Those fans saw the potential for investment in players. Hill-Wood, on the other hand, faced with a potential U.S.-based investor, saw a boorish American rolling into the Arsenal board room and redecorating it in a Western theme with a bull's head over the entryway, rather than a financial savior for his club and his ticket to staying in the upper echelon of the English Premier League.

The exit of Dein, who was not only extremely close to Wenger and Henry but was viewed as the real leader of the club, was the beginning of the end for Henry at Arsenal. Henry spoke out vociferously against Dein's exit. And then, after Wenger refused to extend his contract beyond June 2008, Henry, who had rejected a move to Barcelona before last season, last week responded to the tug of his mortality as a player (he turns 30 in August) and decided to pursue his first Champions League title surrounded by stars like Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o in Barcelona rather than leading a bunch of promising youngsters in North London.

It's not a stretch to say that hyperbolic, anti-American fears on the part of the Arsenal board forced Dein out. And, it's a straight line from Dein's ouster to Henry's exit. So, I feel comfortable blaming Bush (a little, anyway) for the departure of one of the best player's in the world from my favorite football team.

It is fascinating to me that Hill-Wood never saw this chain of events coming. And, it could get worse. If Wenger goes, Arsenal becomes a team that lacks both the resources of the other "big four" clubs and the manager with exceptional abilities in spotting talent and developing young players that allowed the club to compete despite its financial limitations. And, if Wenger goes, many of the top young players on the Arsenal squad, like superstar-in-waiting Cesc Fabregas, may follow him out the door. Some pundits are even asking if Henry's departure is the beginning of the end for Arsenal's status as a major club.

And to think, Arsenal's possible self-destruction has come from its board's disdain of Americans.

Not surprisingly, Hill-Wood has recently done a 180-degree turn and met with Kroenke in New York earlier in the month, and one can only hope that at some point in the near future, Kroenke and his Wal-Mart inflated checkbook will be welcomed into the Arsenal family. But the damage has been done. Henry was more than just a great player. Unlike many players that dip into town, take the big paycheck, but never bother to become part of the culture or even learn to speak English, Henry embraced London. His English is flawless. He married an English woman (the model Nicole Merry). He was Arsenal's captain, a leader for the young players to learn from. And now, he's gone. The 16 million pounds Barcelona paid Arsenal for Henry will allow the Gunners to buy a decent player, but there is no way to replace everything Henry brought to the club.

I already viewed Bush as the man who valued religion over science and logic, and who has failed the American people at every turn, especially in his criminally incompetent handling of Iraq. But, who would have ever thought that he would play a role in an English soccer team losing its French captain? It seems Bush's ability to mess things up is limitless. At least that's what I'm going to take from Henry's departure. It's better than looking forward to a season of Arsenal football without Henry's magic.

*****Footnote: How I Became an Arsenal Supporter?*****
In England, you are not a "fan," you are a "supporter," which recognizes the important role the public plays in the success of professional sports teams.

After the 1998 World Cup, I became very interested in soccer, especially English soccer. I knew my wife and I would be visiting England later that year (we eventually went to an English Premier League game, West Ham United at Coventry City), and I began reading up on the English league on the Internet.

I decided I should choose a team to root for. I believe you should support teams in your home town, but since I didn't see the English Premier League placing a team in New York any time soon, I decided my team should be from London, a city I had visited and loved. With many teams in the capitol to choose from (at the time, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, Wimbledon and Crystal Palace were all in the English Premier League), I chose Arsenal for two primary reasons.

First, my favorite player from the 1998 World Cup, Dutchman Denis Bergkamp, played for Arsenal, as did the only English player I had heard of before the World Cup started, striker Ian Wright. Throw in Dutch winger Marc Overmars and English goalkeeper David Seaman (and his 1970s porn star mustache), and I knew more players on Arsenal than on any other club.

But, the main thing that attracted me to Arsenal was its tradition of playing tough defense. Other teams' fans would sing "boring, boring Arsenal" during games, making fun of the team's defensive style, but, to me, that was a compliment. While many soccer fans talk about "the beautiful game," meaning the passing of the ball and the offensive-minded approach to the game, I felt like I should not give up my beliefs as an American sports fan in my new sport, and I had always pulled for teams that played good defense. I viewed it as a character issue. Offense is glamorous and easy to get excited about. Only true team players embraced defense. And, in 1998, Arsenal started four, tough English defenders, including captain Tony Adams, in front of Seaman and his mustache. They were so iconic, they were held up as the definition of organization in the "The Full Monty," as quoted at the top of this piece.

Ironically, in the years that followed, as Wenger put his stamp on his team, he recognized that English players cost more money just because they carried a British passport. So, to compete without a ton of money for transfer fees, he imported players from other countries (he was one of the first English club managers to embrace players from Africa) and moved to a more continental, offense-oriented style. As a result, Arsenal now routinely sends a starting 11 onto the field with no British players in the line-up. Only youngsters Justin Hoyte and Theo Wolcott will compete for a starting spot next season, unless Wenger brings in another British player during the off-season.

But it doesn't matter if they play 11 Englishmen or none, or if they play attacking football or tough defense like in the days of Tony Adams, I am an Arsenal supporter. And I will continue to be an Arsenal supporter, even with Thierry Henry in Spain. But, he will be missed.