Monday, September 13, 2010

Arsenal, Highbury, Thierry Henry, Red Bull New York, and Me

by Dick Mac

In October, 2000, I attended my first English football match, in London. Friends of ours took Mrs. Mac and me to Highbury to see Arsenal play Manchester City.

I knew what soccer was, and I had attended NASL Boston Beacons matches at Fenway Park in the 1960s; but I had no interest in the sport. Many long-time friends will tell you I derided the game while praising the virtues of baseball and American football. I subscribed to all the humorous notions that it can't be a sport because you can't use your hands, and that the game was so boring you had to stab your neighbor in the stands for excitement.

Given my prejudice, I decided to approach this event with an open mind. I was, after all, a guest in a foreign land and the guest of an American acquaintance who insisted I would enjoy the match.

We stopped by a ticket agency (a tout, in the vernacular) in Regent Street at Piccadilly Circus and collected two pairs of tickets at ninety quid a pair. Then we made a reasonably short journey on the tube to Highbury, home of Arsenal. Our seats were quite good in the East Lower stand, twenty-odd rows back from the field (the pitch) at the top of the box.

I knew nothing about the teams, but I knew I was at Arsenal's home and I would cheer for Arsenal. Sadly, the two pairs of tickets, although in the same section, were ten rows apart from each other. The other couple sat closer to the pitch.

I knew nothing about the terminology of the game and confused the terms "free-kick" and "penalty-kick" in a conversation with an older gentleman who arrived late and asked how the goals had been scored. Good-natured chuckles all around as another guy explained the shots were not penalty kicks.

Arsenal won the match 5-0, but the match was no where near as close as the score sounds.

Arsenal had acquired a player named Thierry Henry, and his hat-trick that day was a feat I will never forget. Henry, along with his amazing teammates, mesmerized me that day, and I fell in love.

I fell in love with soccer, and I fell in love with Thierry Henry.

After moving back to New York a year later, I worked hard to get access to the English Premier League matches: pay-per-view, website and magazine subscriptions, early morning visits to pubs. I couldn't get enough.

Eventually, I learned about Major League Soccer and I became a season-ticket holder.

Sometime in the middle of the decade, Henry began showing-up at New York sporting events and appearing in the press espousing his love for the City and his desire to live here. He said he spent all his vacations here, and that he would like to end his career playing in New York!

Rumors persisted for years that he would join Red Bull New York of MLS. Fans of the European game poked fun at me for this ridiculous notion. Henry had moved to Barcelona, another champion, and there was no way, in the estimation of better-versed football fans that he would deign to play in MLS.

I tempered my hopes with the negativism that fans of European soccer seem to thrive on (like a nation of Red Sox fans that spans the globe). I've never let the Eurosnob disdain for American soccer get in the way of my love for the game, and I attend almost every RBNY home match.

When my daughter turned 4-years-old, she became a season-ticket holder, too; and we have never looked back. She is six now, in her third season as a fan, and attending the matches is heaven for us.

This year, Thierry Henry and Red Bull New York announced that he would join the team on a three-year contract.

I don't even know the words to write when describing this. I thought I must be the luckiest sports fan in the world.

This past Saturday, RBNY hosted Colorado. We won 3-0 in a wonderful match that rivaled the quality of play of any European match I have seen. Certainly better than all of this weekend's English matches.

After the match and all the associated press events, my daughter and I were given all-access passes and escorted to the post-match interview room.

One at a time, or in small groups, every RBNY player entered the room to say hello, sign the new shirt the team provided to my daughter. Shook hands, gave kisses. chatted about the team, the match, life in New York City, our families, our travels, and the all the things people chat about in a somewhat awkward social setting.

Every player was friendly and gracious and generous of time and spirit: even players known for being a little cranky were all smiles and handshakes. Rafa Marquez, captain of Mexico, and our star midfielder greeted my daughter with a kiss and huge smiles. We were both awed by his ease, even with a sever knock on his ankle. Juan Pablo Angel, captain and most famous of all Red Bulls, seemed to remember my daughter from a previous encounter and was genuinely excited to see her.

Everyone posed for pictures, everyone signed the shirt, everyone was just great.

And then it happened.

My daughter and I had been there for quite a while. The door opened and in walked Thierry Henry. My daughter was cool as a cucumber. He kissed her and asked her questions. We shook hands and I was at a loss for words.

Here I was with Thierry Henry and I could barely speak. I had so much to tell him. I had intended to tell him that he is solely the reason I am a soccer fan today, that his performance that damp October day in 2000 made me a lover. That I have carried a torch for him these ten years and that I adore him.

None of that came out of course. I was like a little boy: dumbstruck.

We chatted and he posed for pictures.

He is more handsome than his pictures show.

He is humbler than his interviews show.

He is an amazing human specimen with the grace of an angel and the presence of a god.

That day, I was the luckiest man in the world.

Support Doctors Without Borders in Haiti

No comments: