Football, Five Year Olds & Pantomime Villains

By The Other Geoff (@Hollefreund)

I have a five year old son with a vivid imagination.  It’s my own fault of course.  I’ve read him all manner of books, let him watch movies about dragons and spacemen and openly encouraged his dinosaur-like tendencies.  He simply lives in an imaginary world and quite frankly, I love it.

There are some drawbacks however.  School can be a particular challenge and when it comes to watching sports with his Dad, well this is nearly impossible.  There is almost no way a five year old who believes he is a T-Rex can sit still for three minutes, let alone watch ninety minutes of Arsenal versus Stoke at 7 am in the morning – note that this is his prime energy time.

To come at a problem like this, you have to really rethink the value proposition for your kid.  Creativity needs to be countered with creativity,  so I began to create a sort of mythology around Arsenal.  I started with the heroes: Dennis “The Iceman” Bergkamp, “King” Henry, “Mr. Arsenal” Tony Adams, Le Professor…

This new take on Arsenal invigorated him. What powers would the Ox use to unlock the defense?  Does the Welsh Wizard know many spells?  How many forwards have been Verminated?  He sat, wide eyed, captivated by the stories I told about the Arsenal.

Ultimately, the conversation turned to villains.  In my eagerness to impress my son, I’d created an exhaustive list of Arsenal heroes without even considering who those heroes would face.

“Who are the bad guys dad?” he asked on cue.  I didn’t know where to start.

There are literally thousands of characters that I could consider as Arsenal villains.  Don’t believe me?  Count the number of times our friend Jason Davies (@jasondavies71) calls someone a c**t on the next ABW podcast.

We started with the low hanging fruit of course.  There was Evil King Twitchy and his Financial Advising Dog, the Dutch Skunk of Manchester, the Wife Stealer of Stamford Bridge, the Orc Army of Stoke (this one thrilled him), the Bitey Cannibal of Scousedor, and of course the super villains – the evil Chickens of Tottenham (he’s five, I couldn’t very well show him Jack’s video from the FA Cup Parade, could I?).

There were some unforeseen side effects of contextualizing sport like this.  The most notable occurred on my son’s first day of football when, believing himself to be “a mighty Arsenal warrior,” he chased several of the opposition clear off the pitch, including all of their defenders and goalie.  Their parents shrieked in displeasure and attempted to round up the squealing kids and get them back on the field but not before my son’s team scored a completely unopposed goal.  Not one to miss out on the opportunity to make a sarcastic comment, I leaned over to the parents next to me and calmly pointed out that “I’ve never seen Messi do that.”

I’ve found myself thinking about villains a lot this week.  It really started with this excellent video on FIFA by John Oliver.  If you haven’t seen it, you really ought to take the time to watch it.  In one of his beautifully articulated points, Oliver compares the FIFA boardroom with that from Dr. Strangelove.

That really got me thinking, if Sepp Blatter and FIFA are the villains of world football, who specifically is the single villain of Arsenal?

It brought me back to my conversations with my son and the long list of villains we had drafted.  I pushed myself further to come up with a single name and found myself blurting out odd name combinations that seemed to represent my brain’s way of rationalizing multiple characters into one person; Robin Van Piersmorgan,  Neil Anthonytaylorshton, Jose Adebayorinho, Tony Pardewulis, Daniel Legrovey, and of course John Terry.

My brain wouldn’t let me do it – stupid brain.  There was no single person.  What I did find was not only a growing list of people, but also an ever expanding list of football villain archetypes.  These were undoubtedly the pantomime villains of the epic that is Arsenal.

From the Borderline Journo type, who spends his time “nicking a living” attempting to wind us up to sell articles. The Enigmatic Foreign Owner type who could be using our club to launder money or worse, intends on changing our home colours to pink and wants to name us the “Panthers.”  From the Biased Official type who could rob our team of three points on the opening day of the season to the Celebrity Twitter Whore type that feels the need to speak bollocks at every opportunity and conveniently forgets any trouble they may have caused Gooners in Copenhagen.

I was just getting warmed up.  There were certainly more.

There is a special place in hell for the Ex-Footballer Pundit type that speaks in a variation of scouse and has a complete lack of tactical knowledge of the modern game.  Even better are the Mind Game Manager type who frequently can’t remember what he’s actually said to wind-up the opposition, often ending in a negative spiral of ironic hilarity; a “specialist in failure” if you will.  Then there are the Bitey, Racist, Philandering, Divey, Players on Other Teams type, of whom I couldn’t think of any specific examples.

We could all speak ad nauseam on the topic of our biggest villain; the Bitter Rival and Simpleton Fans type.  As Gooners, we are fortunate to have such an unworthy adversary, yet somewhere deep within the psyche of this villain type, is an imagined and deluded superiority complex which causes such gems as “Mind the Gap” and “1-1 at Newcastle.” Our Bitter Rival and Simpleton Fans type truly is the gift that keeps on giving (note we will not be making this blog into a DVD).

Of all the different types of villains we can categorize, there was one that resonated the loudest with me; the Traitorous Ex-Player type.  Search out the fallen hero in literature and there is example after example of the hero turned villain.  Known for betraying our trust, the protagonist turned antagonist is more than a symbolic and momentary villain because they play on our emotions.  Utter joy at the sight of kissing the badge is replaced by irrefutable hatred at the spectacle of them in our bitterest rivals’ colours.  Put simply, there is no other villain archetype that alienates us as a fan base the way these guys do.

The truth is we need villains because football isn’t a single story, but a series of stories that get published weekly.  Our villains are transient from week to week like a comic book, regularly pitting our heroes against the constant threat of our serial adversaries.  That’s one of the many reasons why football is so endearing to us fans.

And we’re good at identifying villains too; maybe sometimes a little too good.  The constant serialization of villains has caused us to become ever more ruthless in our attempts to characterize them. The case could be made that we vilify too quickly, sometimes turning on our fellow fans, our players, and the manager.  It’s an odd phenomenon because when you think about it, there should be a multitude of villains outside of our dear club’s borders to appease our insatiable appetite for adversaries.

Villains play such an important role in the broader narrative of sport, and as fans, they enrich our experience.  They make supporting our teams, and by extensions our heroes, so much more meaningful.   They also take us back to the times when we were five, pretending to be Arsenal warriors battling the evil parish of the Seven Sisters.

And so in the same week that Ceslski Fabregas announced his stunning return to London, I leave you with this small comfort: football without villains would be like toast without beans; palatable if you have to eat it, but devoid of the inevitable flatulence that amuses us all.

Cheers all,

The Other Geoff

You can follow him on twitter : (@Hollefreund)

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