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Monday, 3 September 2007

The Heart of the Matter...

Sunday 2nd September, 2007: Arsenal 3 (Adebayor [pen.], Fabregas, Rosicky), Portsmouth 1 (Kanu) sad we all were to hear of the death of Antonio Puerta. It's not credible that this should happen in the modern game. Also, it raises some questions; was the player aware of any [heart] condition himself? Was the club aware? If not, why not?

...It's appalling to die from something that could have been detected and treated. However, it could also be the case that the player knows what he has and decides to carry on. That happened in France. A player called Omar Sahnoun, a French international, knew he had a heart disease that could be deadly but he decided to go on. He basically decided to take the risk of dying rather than not play football.

Arsene Wenger's matchday programme notes

Before leaving for today's game, I start to watch the recording of Friday night's Super Cup final between Milan and Sevilla. All 22 players have PUERTA printed on the back of their shirts, the memento mori of his name beneath their squad numbers a ghostly echo of their own. It's as if they're saying it could have been anyone of us collapsing like that, dying like that. Any one of this haunted 22, but for the grace of God, dead at 22. When Renato scores, the Sevilla players join him in celebration. Huddled together, each points heavenward, up towards the teammate they've lost, offering this otherwise unexceptional goal to his memory. I don't get to see the second half, don't know who won the game even, but it doesn't seem to matter which eleven Puertas triumphed or if the game ended a draw.

Sevilla play AEK of Athens tomorrow night to decide who will join Arsenal, Slavia Prague and Steau Bucharest in Champions League group H. Sevilla are two goals up from the first leg, so chances are that their faithful will be making the trip to London on 19th September, when they'll no doubt unfurl the same 'Puerta Presente' banner that summed up the spirit of Friday night's game. Rightly or wrongly, football's often described as a religion. Those Spanish fans clearly felt some transubstantiative force around the game and that transcendant shimmer of shirts, their votive arms upstretched to the one they'd lost was very, very moving.

In any case, if football were little more than harmless escapism, you wouldn't know it from leafing through today's matchday programme. Aside from the tribute to Puerta there's a memorial to Ray Jones, the promising QPR striker who died in a car crash last weekend. Next to that is a get well message to Clive Clarke, the Leicester City loanee who survived a similar collapse to Puerta's in a midweek game. Then there's a plug for HIV/AIDS charity 'Football Reaching Out For Africa' who are putting on a 'do' at the Royal Albert Hall (hosted by Patti Boulaye, no less) where you can pay to go and see Greg Dyke massacre 'Great Balls of Fire', apparently. Snowdon 500 is a sponsored climb up and down the Welsh mountain in aid of prostate cancer; there's the obligatory help-line number for anyone affected by such issues. And we're only up to page 9.

The Basra challenge takes up most of Page 10. Flight Lieutenant Allan Pluckrose (who surely should have been a 1950s inside forward with a name like that) and Corporal Dan Harmer (his opponent in defence) will run a mile for every goal Arsenal score between the beginning of the season and the end of their tour of duty in Iraq raising money for Bob Wilson's Willow Foundation. That's the charity the former Arsenal goalkeeper and his wife set up as a permanent memorial for their daughter Anna, who died of cancer aged 31. The whole of page 20 is devoted to Treehouse ("Ambitious about Autism"), Arsenal's Charity of the Season 2007-2008.

Page 23 sees the launch of the "Arsenal for Everyone" initiative, "which aims to celebrate diversity in all its forms at the club". It's been set up "as part of the club's work towards achieving the intermediate level of the 'Racial Equality Standard'. Only intermediate? Pages 34 and 35 concern another initiative, this time devised by the Premier League. "Creating Chances" (mmm, nice one) is "emphasising that community work is now more important than ever for football clubs around the country". On to pages 38-40 which detail Arsenal in the Community. "Write Now and Then" is a film and poetry project for local school children based around Islington's literary heritage (Dickens, Orwell, Hornby, Charlie George's autobiography etc.), whilst the Arsenal Double Clubs offer a variety of courses to supplement the school and college curriculum. Former Arsenal reserve Danny Rebuck reports on his successful Israeli Summer Soccer Camps and we are asked to contribute to the Arsenal in Galilee Peace Programme, "the climax of a year of co-existence football among 12 Jewish and Arab towns and villages in northern Israel". If only, you find yourself thinking, the bloody government would get its finger out and help the way that Arsenal is, there'd be a better world and we could all get back to reading about the sodding football.

In fact, it's almost a relief to reach the blank backing of the pullout poster of Cesc Fabregas stapled to the programme's middle, but still the world of misery and pain outside the game intrudes. On page 45, Arsenal Remembers:

Billy A... - Remembering our true little gooner on your 14th birthday on September 7th. Miss you loads. Thinking of you always. All our love, Mum, Dad and Danny xxx

Page 67 features a letter from Joyce Vernon whose husband Les used to play for the club in the 1950s. "He is now 72", she writes "and it would be lovely for him to see this matchday programme and cheer him up as he was due to go into hospital on Thursday for a spinal operation". Finally an interview with Arsenal physio, Gary Lewin. It's titled, "The Heart of the Matter", and in it Gary gives details of how Arsenal's defibrillators and cardiac screening programmes should, God willing, prevent an occurence for Arsenal and England such as the Puerta tragedy.

The real world finally subdued, we can read about today's opponents, Portsmouth. Manager Harry Rednapp is five victories away from his 400th win as a manager, John Utaka's nickname is "The Torpedo" and today sees a return in Pompey colours of former Arsenal players Lauren, Kanu and (as part of the Portsmouth coaching staff) Tony Adams.

For Tim: "Hard cheese, old boy!"

I'd been looking forward to seeing Portsmouth play, but they don't seem to get going until the second half - they probably read the programme too. By then they're already two goals down; a coolly taken Adebayor penalty that sends David James the wrong way after the 'keeper had brought down van Persie in the box and a swivelling Fabregas shot from close range from a Gilberto knockdown at the near post. At half time, things are serene and calm, the only irritations being the nerve jangling sleighbells someone's insisted on bringing along and shaking continuously, perhaps by way of an oblique, Provofiev-style Russian reference and the slightly sinister connotation that now accompanies the Arsenal faithful's chanting of "Red Army".

But I needn't have feared; sure enough, with the second period barely begun, there's the obligatory event. The lumbering Senderos gets caught out the wrong side of Kanu (whose own history of heart problems is surprisingly absent from the programme's litany of woe, misfortune and tragedy) and brings the gangling Nigerian down. Senderos is duly sent off by Mark Halsey, a decision that, whilst strictly correct by the letter of the law, seems a little harsh in the context of an otherwise well-contested game. But then Halsey is the refereeing equivalent of Coronation Street's uber-pedant Roy Cropper. Portsmouth somehow contrive not to score from the resulting free kick on the edge of the Arsenal box, "The Torpedo" blasting a close range Exocet over the bar when it seems easier to score.

Strangely, the dismissal appears to work in Arsenal's favour, as if the lessening of passing options has brought a clarity to their play. In the game's crucial period in the wake of the sending off, they hold their own and even manage to score a third; the lively Rosicky who has thrived in the extra space that's come with the game opening up takes Cesc's quickly taken free kick in his stride and blasts low past James from a narrow angle to seal the game for Arsenal.

Or so you'd think. But no, seconds later, with what is either astonishing good fortune or outrageous skill, Kanu has allowed a seemingly harmless ball into the box to hit the heel of his size 14 boot and slice providently into the Arsenal net. Portsmouth come back strongly, right back Glenn Johnson coming more to the fore and new signing Nugent looking lively, but Arsenal just about hold firm. They keep playing their assertive passing game and almost conjure a delightful fourth; a succession of first time passes and the play is spread across the pitch like a fan opening up, the ball eventally spirited out to increasingly assured young left back Gael Clichy. His perfect cross invites Diaby to plant a header in the corner, only for the tall substitute to power the ball a foot or so wide.

Arsenal cling on at a series of late Portsmouth corner kicks, but with three minutes of time added on, the visiting Scummers begin to leave in their dejected lines of blue. I stay to watch the obligatory centre circle love-in, the errant Diaby who is wondering off alone for his bath is called back to join his colleagues, so seriously do they seem to take this admirable show of community that it has to be completely inclusive; probably something to do with that new initiative.

We're briefly halted at the crowd control barrier while the tube absorbs our crowd. The mounted police in their lurid Chelsea away strip flourescent bibs form a quota-driven snapshot of modern Britain - alternating, white, black, Asian, male, female. They barely seem aware of us, appear bored and distracted; no doubt planning how they'll spend today's colossal overtime. I drink in the scene. The solid-built cockney behind the mobile burger bar proffers a long, drooping sausage to a time-honoured regular while his chubby Chinese colleague deals with the rest of the queue. To the side of their wheeled porta-cabin stand three young Sikhs, turbanned and bearded, their clothes adorned with Arsenal. An Irish-looking woman twirls a strange dervish in front of me as she tries to avoid a wasp. I look up at the question marks of the crescent moons on the Finsbury Park Mosque.

The District and Victoria lines are barely functioning today, so I take the long haul of the Piccadilly line back to Hammersmith. On the tube, my head forced into a respectful bow by the restrictive arc of the doorway, I peer through the bodies and see a heavy-lidded Arab stood before a Homburged Orthodox Jew with a straggly ginger beard. 'Co-existence football'. 'A new initiative'. On the train to Richmond, a pretty blonde in cool black shades twitters way on her mobile, "dobry, dobry" she trills, twirling her clog-like, stilleto heeled shoes as two peacock gays ooh and coo beside her. Someone looks up from their mobile, the Chelsea match update; "Villa have just scored."

I see the Russian(?) blonde disappear off towards the shops of Richmond, still dobrying away into her phone and I realise that this is it for two weeks now. No more football during the international break, only England. I suppose that means that for the moment I'll have to tell you about England. England and me. England, me and Wembley.

L.U.V. on y'all,


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