Arsenal; It’s not personal, it’s just tribal
Home is where the heart is; so they say. When it comes to football and Arsenal, it is so much more. It’s tribal.
We as a race of beings – for the entirety of our history – have always resorted to our most primitive tribal instincts. Even down to the neighborhood that you hail from. Whether if it is north vs south London, or the Bronx vs Brooklyn, there is so much more to just being from a nation, region, or city. It’s more local…sometimes down to the very block.
In the case of the Arsenal fanbase, they are as territorial and tribal as any. This is not a bad thing, mind you. There is absolutely nothing wrong with not just loving where you come from, but supporting the communal nature of it. Football brings millions together, but it also separates them along different lines beyond a shared passion for the sport or a particular club.
But when it comes to Enos Stanley Kroenke and KSE (Kroenke Sports & Entertainment), the Arsenal fanbase – rightly or wrongly depending on the topic – have never taken to the Missouri-born billionaire.
As recently as this month, sections of the fanbase have begun clamoring for more protests against his ownership of the club. You know, for the usual reasons (more on that later). And while I am no fan of Kroenke at all – and as I am an American, I am well-versed in his timeline of ownership here – I also understand that it is one thing to be disappointed in ownership for the right reasons, but it is also difficult to see where Arsenal fans have a real genuine argument to justify claims of Armageddon.
This is where I think the frustration shown has roots that are greater than just a financial argument.
Arsenal fans and Stan the money man
Billionaire ownership is commonplace on the footballing landscape these days. In no league is this more prevalent than in the Premier League. It should come as no surprise that someone like Kroenke wanted to get involved.
Considering Arsenal has always run on a sustainable model long before he turned up at board level, it was the ideal capture for a man who continues to look for more. His moving of the St.Louis Rams back to Los Angeles while using Arsenal as an avenue to secure favorable loans serves as a testament to just where our place is in his crown.
But the truth of the matter is that, as a businessman, making money is precisely where his priorities will primarily reside. As a financial juggernaut and valued in the top seven richest football clubs in the world, if anything, we provide little-to-no headache for an owner who could very easily have to prop the club up if we weren’t where we are.
Our infrastructure is top class, including brilliant academy and training facilities, while having one of the premier grounds in Europe. So when Arsenal fans scream into cameras demanding for Kroenke to “spend some f****** money!”, I chuckle.
With the emergence of FFP and STCC regulations, owner investment to prop up player deals is minimal. Unlike John Henry and Fenway Sports Group, he hasn’t been forced to upgrade the club on the back end. The simple fact that he is a billionaire – at least on the surface – automatically has fans thinking that his refusal to “back the club” is because of greed.
In reality, there’s little he can actually do bar taking on the remaining stadium debt off the clubs books. There actually isn’t much money he can spend to improve matters in north London at current.
He’s not Arsenal
I recently conducted a poll on my personal Twitter account regarding Kroenke’s ownership. The simple question was whether or not the fanbase would be more receptive of an owner who – even if he or she had a fraction of Kroenke’s wealth – was local in origin. Not shockingly, 90% of the 1,437 that voted picked the local option. As someone I know responded; better the devil you know.
Is it so outside of the box to suggest that the majority of the hatred or criticism flung in Kroenke’s direction is simply because he is not Arsenal? Not a local? Though only a small fraction, the poll did lend weight to the notion that the fans would be far more tolerant of the club going through “tough times” if it had an owner who knew what it meant to love the club. A person the fanbase would happily share a trench with.
This is an argument that I not only can get behind but understand far more than the now-nonsensical financial debate. How would I feel if the New York Yankees or the New York Rangers were taken over by a foreign owner/conglomerate? Regardless of the results that would come in its wake, it is hard to get behind ownership that does not understand the club or its supporters to the very core.
With Arsenal now struggling to keep up in the race with its closest competitive and London-based rivals, the fact that it has continued under KSE stewardship is a recipe for unrelenting frustration. In theory, a local owner, or even just someone who was deeply rooted in the footballing community, would understand the cries from the supporters’ section.
To so many, this isn’t just fandom. It is a love affair that has lasted a lifetime. Past down through generations.
Arsenal Tribalism deeper than ownership criticism
With Adidas‘ ad for Arsenal’s new kit now public (and my, is it brilliant), yet another example of how football and Arsenal remain tribal can now be referenced.
Featuring Ian Wright, Idris Elba, current Arsenal players both male and female, shots of the Highbury facade, and a brilliant salute to David Rocastle, it was a brilliant watch but also a perfect example of what – and who – Arsenal is home to.
Despite the millions of fans around the globe, Arsenal remains a fortress for the local. A wonderful thing indeed, though sometimes it does rear its ugly head when many criticize foreign fans for “not being as knowledgable” about football, or that they may be unable to attend matches. Much of the same jingoism is used to beat Kroenke with, featuring regular mentions of the fact that he is American. As one, I regularly come across many in the fanbase mention my country of origin as a reason to discredit my opinion, despite my ample experience in the game speaking to the contrary.
But it is this same notion of love and passion that can be weaponized in a harmful way. This holds true when discussing the actual first-team as well.
Fiercely loyal to their own, Arsenal fans continue to demand the club put their faith in its current crop of academy players, particularly Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith-Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, and a handful of others. All homegrown, all English, and all born in London. A throwback to the likes of George, Rocastle, Thomas, Adams, Merson, Parlour, Cole, and Wilshere.
At its core, much of the anti-Kroenke sentiment is very much not only due to a lack of genuine success for the club, but because he has not been accepted by the tribe.
Skirting between passion and misdirection
There is something to be said of that feeling when you go back to where it all began. The corner where you had your first kiss, the local grocer where you had your first job…even the way the neighborhood smelled compared to others. Many to this day still criticize the move to the Emirates Stadium on similar grounds, claiming that it will never truly feel like home.
While passion for your roots is the normal, even an expectation, Arsenal supporters run the risk of using it as an excuse to sling tales of ignorance rather than utilize common sense.
Again we must consider Liverpool fan reactions with Henry and FSG. An American like Kroenke, Henry is as aloof and seemingly disinterested as Stan. By all accounts, he rarely interacts with the supporter base, rarely comes over for matches, and, like Stan (and everyone else) does not directly spend money on player acquisition. Those days are over for PL ownership.
The difference between Henry and Liverpool and Kroenke’s Arsenal ownership is that Liverpool is challenging in the league and are now champions of Europe. The only genuine criticism that the fanbase can levy in Stan’s direction is that he has failed to hold accountable those he delegates responsibility to. This is the only instance where demanding an owner that cares is a valid argument.
On the strength of it, Kroenke indeed still does care – he’s just not in love with the club like you or I. As owner and principal investor, it is within his best interest that the club performs to maximum capacity on the pitch thus giving him the best financial returns possible. And because he is not a football man, delegating tasks to those that are is practical ownership.
Moving forward together
Much like the Adidas ad mentioned through Wright’s jovial tone; “you ain’t born a Londoner, you are made one.” For Stan Kroenke, the only way for him to be truly accepted into the Arsenal tribe is for the club to return to happier times under his stewardship. It’s the only way Henry has held the support the red half of Merseyside. Without their recent success, it is likely similar soundbites would emerge from up north.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it is not all doom and gloom for Arsenal as a global club or a local institution. Two of Kroenke’s sports franchises – the Colorado Avalanche (NHL) and Los Angeles Rams (NFL) – are primed for big things in their respective leagues. The Avs have one of the most exciting and young cores in hockey, while the Rams – fresh off a SuperBowl appearance – appear to be set to establish themselves as an elite team moving forward.
It is important to note that Josh Kroenke headed up the Avalanche rebuild much in the same way that the fanbase is craving to see at the Emirates; a young core with veteran leadership. Though Stan did not attend the Europa League final, Josh did. It was another instance of delegation to the person who would be heading up the Arsenal project.
At the end of the day, football is a results business. Regardless of how financially solvent Arsenal is, it is imperative that the club focus on progression.
More than anything, this is a fanbase desperate for success. It does not matter who presides over it. But for Enos Stanley Kroenke, the only way he will truly be accepted into this footballing family is to help bring Arsenal back to the pinnacle of the footballing world.