Arsenal vs Tottenham: A Yank investigates the North London Derby
I am in north London talking about Gareth Bale’s penis.
It’s huge, according to the three Tottenham Hotspur supporters seated across from me. We are in a vintage clothing shop recording a football podcast, even though I’m woefully under-qualified to talk football. I appreciate the game but I’m American: tactics are lost on me. We’ve finished talking about players I’ve never heard of and now we are talking about Bale’s member. It’s a few days before the recent North London derby; Bale had yet to complete his transfer to Real Madrid.
Flav, the pod’s moderator, is maintaining that Bale is huge. He has given this some thought. A few days later, he will mention a specific instance in a Champions League game against Inter Milan when Bale’s girth, so to speak, was particularly evident. I take his word for it.
In the real world, the 32-year-old works for a media company. Flav, which is not his real name, runs a Spurs blog. He has five brothers, all Spurs fans. He grew up in Holloway, deep in the heart of Arsenal country, but his father supported Spurs, so he had no other option. I’m here in the hopes he’ll contextualize the rivalry between Arsenal and his club.
He is more than happy to oblige, telling me that the Gunners are a soulless franchise; interlopers from south London who connived their way to the top flight. He hits all the standard Spurs talking points: the club’s Woolwich genesis that preceded their cross city move onto what had been Spurs’ turf and the dubious 1919 promotion at the expense of Spurs. To him, Arsenal supporters only like the team because of their success on the pitch. They miss the whole point, he says.
The derby terrifies him. Worst derby memory? “There are so many. Too many.” He is fatalistic.
“I don’t enjoy a single minute,” he says. “It’s a fear of inevitability. It’s inevitable that Spurs will fail. We’ve made it a tradition of f**king up at the last minute. But there’s something glorious about that.”
“What do I think about Spurs? I don’t. I genuinely don’t.”
Steve Kell is a 55-year-old business analyst who now lives in the Surrey suburbs. He is the co-editor of an Arsenal fanzine. We are in the Arsenal Football Supporters Club, a squat building a short walk from the Emirates, the week before the derby. Arsenal photos line the walls; I recognize the goalkeeper with the porn name and the porn facial hair.
Kell has been an Arsenal supporter for decades; he can recall the change in direction on a 35-yard strike Liam Brady strike from 1978.
Kell’s main point: Spurs are obsessed with his club, whereas Arsenal just concentrates on being Arsenal. He gives me the impression that Spurs supporters wrap themselves in defeat and victimhood and call it glory. Arsenal wins, while Spurs nurse a healthy inferiority complex.
“It makes me laugh that they think they’re sort of rivals,” says Kell. “They’re rivals because of their locality, not because of the quality of their players and their team.”
On the day of the derby, I go to an Arsenal pub named Phibbers on Holloway Road.
I ask people why they hate Spurs. Few people have succinct answers. I get blank looks, as if I had asked the most self-evident question ever. One guy mentions the scourge of small-man syndrome. Some half-heartedly talk about proximity. Insights are lacking. I find myself thinking about Huckleberry Finn encountering two feuding southern clans hell-bent on destroying each other even though no one can remember what the original beef was. Maybe the Woolwich move and years of being the nail to Arsenal’s hammer has given Spurs fans a clearer understanding of the malice.
One guy dismisses talk of Arsenal’s roots south of the river: “Ancient history. Might as well be talking about the Ottoman Empire.”
In what has to be the most cryptic explanation of a rivalry ever, one Arsenal bloke tells me: “Why do you think they named it Mount Everest? Because it’s there.”
Then comes the real weirdness and confusion and reminders that as an American I will never really get English football culture.
Once again, I’m talking about penises. I mention the podcast discussion about Bale’s member to an Arsenal fan from Bristol who refuses to give me his name. His answer, which I suppose I should have seen coming: “I don’t have any thoughts about that, except that you know he doesn’t have any foreskin, because he’s a Jew.”
Later, another Arsenal fan responds to my query about the rivalry with “Do you want the racist answer or the non-racist answer?” A few minutes before that response, a 29-year-old private investigator from Galway, Ireland named Ronnie had just finished telling me “Arsenal is probably the most racially integrated club in Britain.”
Ronnie is probably right, yet I don’t have to probe much before folks start talking about circumcised dicks and Jews as if those things mean something and explain everything. That’s pretty textbook nod-and-wink anti-Semitism, but English football fans would call it banter.
Spurs fans themselves will tell me that they don’t consider their hated rival to be a racist football club. These same folks will admit that their own club came under fire for a racist and homophobic chant about favorite-son-turned-Tottenham-pariah Sol Campbell. In case you don’t know it, it was the one that culminated with the lyric “You’re a Judas-c**t with HIV.”
This would be the very same fan base that embraces a Jewish slur as its own moniker. “Yid” has become so synonymous with Spurs that the first result in a Google-search of the word is the most recent North London derby score. But yet when you point out that all of that, objectively speaking, is really f**king bizarre, most football fans in this country will shrug.
I leave the pub confused. A few minutes before kickoff, I hop a bus to Crouch End to watch the game with Spurs fans.
If you’ve been in a beer garden with a television showing football in this country, you know the scene: lots of middle-aged men, eyes trained upward to the action on the big screen. They drink pensively. They smoke aggressively. The referee is a c**t, as is his mother. Arsene Wenger is a c**t. Jack Wilshere is also a c**t. Arsenal are gypsies and nomads and should f**k off back to south London. Some dude from Spurs needs to learn how to f**king cross the ball. Ad infinitum.
There is a dude with a “Proper Noff” t-shirt. There is the fattest Staffordshire bull terrier I’ve ever seen. There is Kronenberg and pork crackling.
When Olivier Giroud scores the only goal of the game, fists slam against picnic tables, then a stream of expletives, then silence. Gareth Bale and his penis are nowhere to be seen.
After the match, there is a sense of acceptance. One Spurs fan casually opines about how marriage changed his life.
Famed director and comedian Woody Allen, explaining his devotion to the New York Knicks, once argued that sport is as important as life itself, writing: “why is it such a big deal to work and love and strive and have children and then die and decompose into eternal nothingness.”
Suffice to say there are no Woody Allens in either Crouch End nor Holloway on this Sunday.
Instead you get guys talking about Woolwich, the Invincibles and Spurs winning the league in black-and-white, but I think they would agree with the sentiment: much of life is ultimately pointless, so why not spend it assigning significance to men who run around in certain coloured uniforms and their respective phalluses?
I’m about to leave Crouch End to the neighborhood Arsenal pubs to try and capture some of the postmatch revelry. It will prove to be a pointless trip. In the morning, my notes will contain bland quotes from Gunners fans talking about the importance of winning and the satisfaction of beating Spurs, who splurged on the transfer market, “while we have spent bugger-all.” Also, at some point I wrote down, in big block letters: WENGER=ANGRY DASHCHUND. Crack reportage, really.
Right before I leave, I ask Flav to summarize the match. He says despite the defeat, he’s happy with the way Spurs played.
“It’s a long season and Spurs will finish above Arsenal.”
I ask if he wants to add anything else.
“Yeah: F**k them.”