It is frustrating how often the past seems to repeat itself when it comes to Arsenal, both in terms of familiar failings on the pitch and in tying players down to long-term contracts. While the intent on display to re-sign Theo Walcott has been notably more muted and measured – both on the part of fans and club – than it was for Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, they have nonetheless failed to find a resolution or to keep the club’s supporters updated with the kind of urgency that an important situation might require.
If the current impasse does result in Walcott upping stakes, it would be a greater shame for Arsenal than its fans currently realise. For all his frustrating inconsistencies and seemingly perennial inability to accelerate his development, Walcott still encapsulates a thrilling precocity that is quite unlike any other in the game and carries a magic all of its own. On the few occasions on which he has untangled the mysteries that sometimes hold him back, the results have resounded across the footballing stratosphere – from his hat-trick in the demolition of Croatia on the international stage to the way he scythed Barca with his pace enroute to hauling Arsenal back from the brink in a thrilling 2-2 Champions League draw at the Emirates. These were stunning individual displays against opposition of the highest quality at club and international level, and the single-handed effect he had in turning around those games was enriched by a blinding turn of pace that thrilled the senses. There has always been something pure and rousing to the soul about the sight of Walcott put through on goal, haring towards the keeper and slotting away with the coolest of finishes. It was on display when he scored in Arsenal’s last league match against West Ham, as a poignant reminder of the kind of talent they would be forsaking in giving up the battle to keep him.
It may be that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain carries more natural technical talent in one boot than Walcott has in two, and that the fans do not see his potential loss to be as great as those who have left the club in recent times. However, that is to miss the point of how perfectly Walcott captures and reflects the essence of Arsenal. For all those fans who still regard the values that Arsenal have upheld during Wenger’s tenure at the club as worth fighting for, letting go of Walcott would be a significant forfeiture of almost every one of them. Here is a young player who has yet to fulfil his box-office-sized talent or to find the confidence that could define his career, and that Arsenal have made a habit of coaxing out of the charges in their stable. More importantly here is a player who, at the top of his game, conveys the thrilling abandon of football perhaps better than anyone in his sport, and whose lack of an abundance of natural technical talent whilst doing so merely enhances the message that football is a sport of pure joy, to be celebrated by anyone. Above all the pass wizardry and Spanish imitations, it is this pure enjoyment and love of football as a sport that Arsenal under Wenger have sought to communicate and Walcott – through the unaffected way in which he plays and the eternal hint of the promise of youth in his persona – is the living embodiment of this notion. If Arsenal give up on him without a fight, the light will go out on Walcott’s power to captivate at clubs where the pressure to contribute something material is much more suffocating and Arsenal in turn will have signalled that hardening up as a result of some tough experiences with players in recent years has not come without a cost to the things they are celebrated for.
It was difficult not to raise an eyebrow when Stoke manager Tony Pulis called for Luis Suarez to be retrospectively banned for diving, and then another when one of his players – Michael Kightly – took up the baton of painting a gloomy picture of how divers were ruining the game. As far as bringing corrosive influences into the Premier League is concerned, Stoke rank up there with the best of them in how they have successfully managed to gain acceptance for a brand of play that pushes some of football’s most important laws to breaking-point. For every time Suarez tries to con the referee with one of his fairly hopeless dives, there will be at least five occasions on which one or more Stoke players are successfully pulling off a cynical foul either in full view of the officials or behind their back. If these are full-blooded enough to rough up the player, so much the better as it will knock them off their stride and lead them to fear holding onto the ball with quite so much confidence later on in the match. Such are the bully-tactics that Tony Pulis has instructed his team to go out and play with – and on at least two occasions, it has resulted in one of his players breaking an opponent’s leg and perhaps irreversibly altering their career paths for the worse (Francis Jeffers in 2007 and Aaron Ramsey in 2010 – both by Ryan Shawcross’s boot).
For a club who have steadfastly refused to take any blame for the hurt and trauma their style of play has inflicted on other players, it is galling that they should now seek to lecture the Premier League on the framework in which the game should be played. It may be to Pulis’s advantage to ride the anti-diving wave that deflects attention from the kind of on-the-limit tackles that his team routinely make, and perhaps even loosens the protection that referees are prepared to grant players on the receiving end of them. It is noticeable that Michael Owen, now a Stoke player, also chimed in with his own take on the issue and carelessly added a xenophobic element to the discussion by accusing foreign players of bringing it to English shores. However, if Stoke see themselves and the kind of football they peddle as quintessentially English, and worthy of protection against divers, then English football has hopelessly distorted the notion of a ‘contact sport’ and muddled up its morals. Diving will always pale in comparison to the importance of keeping a tight leash on the kind of tackles regularly dished out by Stoke players that carry the brutal power to cause permanent physical and psychological damage. The theatrics of Suarez and co may affect the outcome of matches, but English football seems to have forgotten amidst the current furore that this is a small crime when compared to what the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Dan Smith have wrought on their fellow players in recent years. Some perspective would be gladly appreciated – especially as referees are doing a better job than ever of hauling up divers in matches – and a refocusing of scrutiny on eradicating tackles that result in broken legs (which are still made on a regular basis on weekends in the Premier League) would not go amiss.
What the USA and Europe gave us in this year’s Ryder Cup captured everything that sport is meant to be, and then some. There was not a single player from either team whose body language suggested anything other than the deepest commitment to performing for their country and for an ideal that was bigger than themselves, and there were an astonishing number who used this belief to elevate their games to scarcely believable heights. Twice Phil Mickelson went ahead against Justin Rose in the closing stages of their crucial match with a fabulous putt and chip respectively, and twice Rose hit back by holing putts of his own that exploded the weight of probability and ensured their duel will be enshrined in golfing history. Mickelson’s applause of the first of his opponent’s two putts that kept him alive in the match was given with a sort of ecstatic relish that seemed to recognise that the manner in which each was pushing the other to ever greater heights amidst the cauldron of noise touched on the pure essence of their sporting lives in a way that could not be enjoyed in more lopsided contests, or those driven by prize money. There were delicious moments like this to savour all throughout the three days, including the manner in which Bubba Watson stirred up the crowd to fever pitch on the first tee of his fourballs match and then smacked his ball off the tee right in the middle of the roaring. These were golfers who hit previously untapped reserves of ability and mental strength in service to something greater than themselves, and the infectiousness of the occasion even touched Tiger Woods. Although he only garnered half a point, no-one should doubt the way the 14-time major champion was striving with every ounce of strength he had to find form and join the party. That he didn’t is beside the point, as it was his dedicated body language and complete commitment to a cause other than himself for once that so charmed.
Meanwhile the shots of magic raining down from golfers who became titans for seven hours on Sunday just kept on coming. Nicolas Colsaerts put ball after ball next to the pin from his approach shots. Cut to Jason Dufner holing an eagle putt and letting his sanguine façade slip to bust out a ferocious double fist pump. Jim Furyk’s passion was no less affecting for the fact that it came out most in his losing moments. First he too surprised everyone with an uncharacteristic show of euphoria that quickly turned to disbelief as a sweetly struck putt to close out his match against Sergio Garcia lipped out at the last second. His straining every sinew to hole his putts thereafter was palpable through the screen, as was his despair when an equally valiant effort went past on the last to lose a match he had come so close to winning and concede the initiative to Europe. To see him crouch down in dismay was to feel an intense sympathy that confirmed we were in the presence of a great sporting contest – the kind that holds the unique power to elicit every raw emotion known to man at the same time thanks to the lionhearted commitment of its contestants.
It was left to Jose Maria Olazabal to sum up the transcendent halo cast over this entire tournament by the willing efforts of its twenty-four participants most poignantly. Every ounce of effort they gave in embellishing the game recalled the spirit of Seve Ballesteros, and as he reflected on how he had honoured his dear friend’s memory by winning and through the greatness of his men’s play, Olazabal broke down repeatedly. There may not have been any prize money on offer this week, but the pureness of the Ryder Cup captures everything that is vital about the human spirit, and about golf’s recently passed great champion in Ballesteros. Olazabal, an intense and emotional man, confirmed as much when he spoke these words straight from his heart at the closing ceremony: “All men die, but not all men live. And you [the European team] made me feel alive again this week.” Bravo Europe, bravo Team USA and bravo golf for giving us something to inspire countless generations to come.