The official pizza's hot, the toilets are clean, the playing legends are ready: it's the first Champions League group game at a stadium built for European competition – or possibly a trip to outer space. By Barney Ronay
You know how it is when you go round to someone’s new house. It’s all very nice, of course; but somehow it’s never quite right. Those floral curtains. That full-circle panorama of 150 glass executive boxes dwarfed by two matching 100ft plasma screens. Well, we certainly wouldn’t have done it like that. Maybe you really have to be a fan to get excited about the Emirates Stadium. Either way, Arsenal’s first Champions League game here is a hugely significant occasion for everyone concerned with the erection of this cavernous upturned-spaceship of a stadium. This is, after all, what it’s here for. This a club remodelling – and remortgaging – itself along pan-European lines, with a 60,000-capacity stadium designed not with Reading and Sheffield United in mind, but Real Madrid and Bayern Munich; or even just the club’s first ever meeting with Porto, on a mild Tuesday night.
It certainly looks very important. It’s less a traditional ground, more like the kind of glass and titanium office building you might see in the City. At a cost of £390 million Arsenal have called into being a terrifyingly ambitious project, containing 250 food outlets, 900 toilets with 370 metres of urinal, 2,000 doors and 100 flights of stairs. Close up it still looks like something from an architect’s brochure, or rather a stadium in a computer game, with computer trees lining the concrete walkways and little computer people queuing for computer buffet dinners through the huge green glass windows. This is it, finally, a version of the future we’ve watched taking shape over a decade of tumultuous expansionism. But does it still feel like football?
Inside, Arsenal Water and Arsenal Pizza are being sold at an Arsenal Kiosk, although Arsenal Beer is off. From behind the goal the pitch rises up into a perfect green plateau. The atmosphere seems strangely thin and synthetic; the ground is only a quarter full, but the feeling never quite disappears. The place is just too light and too clean. It feels like we’re all here for a Bryan Adams concert or the Ideal Home Exhibition. Opposite me the enormous far end (including the much ridiculed “singing section”) thrusts up into the evening sky like the Great Pyramid at Giza, except predominantly red and plastic.
“Research shows Arsenal has a global fan base of around 27 million people,” says somebody called HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, chairman of Emirates Airline, on the Arsenal website. Can this be right? Perhaps they should have built the place even bigger, the size of Wales or maybe Belgium. At least a few have turned up tonight. By the time the Porto players have finished one of these fancy scientific foreign warm-up routines we keep hearing about (repeatedly hoofing the ball into an empty net from about ten yards out) and the giant face of Arsène Wenger has begun to address the stadium in stereo from both ends, the place seems pretty much full.
“I have got porno seats mate – right by the pitch,” a man behind me says into his phone and yes, we’re very close. Unfortunately, not as close as the two large ITV cameramen who will block large swathes of the pitch for the whole game. This adds to the occasional sense of having strayed on to a giant TV set. In this stadium you feel incidental, like a member of an audience rather than a crowd; perhaps how one of those gangly teenage girls bopping awkwardly behind a podium on Top of the Pops might have felt.
By now it is at least reassuringly noisy. The game kicks off and the first five minutes are spent taking in quite what an extraordinary spectacle the whole thing is. At pitch level you can see just how quickly this group of players move the ball about. After a minute or two in possession it becomes slightly hypnotic, a high-speed tippety-tap of white boots and one-touch passing. In this stadium and under these lights, watching Arsenal move through their gears really is quite dazzling, for the first few minutes at least. A quarter of an hour in, with the score still 0-0, it all starts to pall slightly.
Some things haven’t changed. The loudest songs are still about hating Spurs, but they come only occasionally, only when everybody remembers, as if by an act of will, that they’re at a football match. At one stage the Porto fans are close to turning this into a home game, whistling loudly whenever Arsenal get the ball. After a spell of Porto possession the people behind me start whispering about “that bloody drum” in the away section, like a middle-aged couple being kept awake by their groovy young neighbours.
Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie get in a few crosses, but Arsenal play without something as crass as a centre-forward, so Helton in the Porto goal gets to do a lot of catching and pointing. “It’s wasted on them – they can’t understand,” laments a woman behind me as a patchy chorus of “Who the fucking hell are you?” is directed at the away end. After a foul on Aleksandr Hleb, Wenger stands up and does his distinctive both-arms-stretched-down-in-disbelief gesture, which seems to cheer everyone up a bit. Most of all Henry, who has been wandering around looking very sleek and cool, while everybody else takes part in a football match. Gliding sideways, he beats three men and tees up Van Persie, who proceeds to hoof the ball over the bar from ten yards. Two minutes later Henry shows him how it should be done, languidly heading the ball into the far corner from a perfect cross by Emmanuel Eboué. It’s 1‑0 to the Arsenal.
At half-time, the middle tier miraculously empties, the hospitality crowd heading inside for their elite refreshment. Some may be enjoying the Legends Package, which gives you the chance to dine “in the company of a player from Arsenal’s glittering past”. Or pie and chips with Nigel Winterburn in any other language. “Over dinner, your Legend will regale you with stories of past glories and give you his unique perspective on the game,” warns the website. Or you could visit the Armoury, the on-site megastore. Though billed as “a destination retail place” and designed by “retail guru George Davis”, the Armoury does still look suspiciously like your average pile-em-high replica shirt boutique.
Fortunately, there’s no time to explore any further as “ladies and gentlemen – Thierry Henry’s Arsenal!” have just been spotted emerging from the tunnel. Within a couple of minutes of the half kicking off, Henry has teed up Hleb for a fine shot into the far corner and straight away you can see some of the heat disappear from the game.
Eboué draws a huge cheer for a powerful sliding tackle in the corner and there’s time once again to admire what Arsenal do well. This is a team without that traditional English essential, the player whose job is mainly to kick people. Cesc Fábregas wears the traditional clogger’s shirt, No 4, but he looks less like David Batty and more like a basketball playmaker or a tennis pro, some bouncy little clay-court baseliner. This is a team who have dispensed with the need to “break up play” or win the ball back, by simply not giving it away very often.
The PA announces an attendance of 59,861 and there is heartfelt applause. It’s a comfortable experience now, a very good product being warmly appreciated. Porto have a little more of the play towards the end, but they seem subdued. It’s a shame substitute striker Alan doesn’t come on. It might have been nice to see a player on either side with a traditional English football name. For all their dizzying patterns, Arsenal could have done with an Alan, too, a player to do the actual sticking-it-in-the-net thing. Someone who does come on is Theo Walcott, to a rapturous reception five minutes from the end. His first act is to fall over. So is his second. But you can see what Wenger spotted in him. He, too, is a graceful mover, with strut to the way he trots about.
The final whistle brings a sense of relief as much as anything else. Yes, this definitely feels like a football match, the crowd seems to be saying to itself. Maybe things are going to be all right after all. In spite of which, as we shuffle past the tourists and teenage boys taking photos of the emptying stands, there is a lingering feeling of empti-ness, something fizzy and synthetic about the whole experience. This was a nice game, played by nice players in a nice stadium. It felt like going to an excellent chain restaurant, where the service, the food and the vast, looming interior were all extremely satisfactory. But you wouldn’t necessarily want to go every week. Is it the newness of the place? Is it the Champions League itself, still a rather forced occasion in these group stages? Or is it just the fact of being a guest in someone else’s new house?
An occasion like this makes you wonder what football is actually for. Arsenal have spent close to half a billion pounds to bring us the ultimate consumer soccer experience. And it really is spectacular, in the same way Disney on Ice probably is. But, predictably enough, it feels like some things have been lost on the way, possibly the most interesting bits. The communal aspect of being part of a football crowd has taken a beating in recent years, not least at this rarefied level. I wonder how many other people wandered away thinking they might have been better off just watching the whole thing on TV.
From WSC 237 November 2006. What was happening this month