My Arsenal, My Church – Pilgrimage Diary (Part 1)

Posted on November 1st, by invinciblog in Eye Candy, General. No Comments

Hi. I’m Batmandela. I’m an atheist.

I don’t believe in God. Or Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. That’s not to say I don’t have my own personal pantheon of ‘deities’. I do.

Here are a few of the “B’s”:

Just The B's...

How many can you name?*


And of course, lording over them all – Zeus. The Iceman:

Bergkamp Is God

I guess I’m a little bit Hindu-ish like that: when fishing for gods I cast a pretty wide net!

The thing about my deities is that I don’t worship them. I don’t believe that they possess any supernatural powers. And they don’t govern my actions, or dictate my daily existence. They do, however, inspire me.

They say Jesus turned water into wine. Well Beethoven and Brubeck could turn a few repeated notes into a musical masterpiece. Brahms could weave a melody into a noose that wound tightly around your heart and brought tears to your eyes. Basho could take the Universe and wrap it into a haiku. Neil’s Böhr saw invisible electrons dancing and mapped their choreography. Baryshnikov was the art of ballet made visible. Michelangelo Buonarotti made poetry out of marble.

And Dennis Bergkamp could perform impossible tricks with a lowly football.

What all of the aforementioned have in common is their ability to turn the profane into something sacred: like magicians, they manipulate our ordinary, common world and make it extraordinary – awesome, in the original sense of that word. They are alchemists.

I have nothing against religion, or religious people. (Except when they believe that their particular/peculiar belief structures make them superior. Or when they attempt to convert me to their faith, as if, somehow, I was incomplete without it. Or when they use their ideologies as weapons, to divide or subvert. Or when they cloak ignorance and intolerance in holy robes, and use them to ride rough-shod over science or common sense. Apart from that, I’m fine with it.)

By all means – enjoy your unbending faith, your strange traditions, your sparkling saints and anguished martyrs, your hidden heavens and living hells. I’ll be over there by the window, staring at the night sky in wide-eyed wonder, not caring how it got here, where here is, who made it, or how

Window On The World

You may wonder what all this talk of religion has to do with Arsenal? Well – the thing is, I’m right slap-bang in the middle of a pilgrimage. There’s no other word to describe it.

As a long-time, absentee supporter, I have watched countless televised Arsenal matches: tiny, pixelated red-and-white figures dancing on a distant field of luminous green. For ten years, whilst living it up in LA, I would set my alarm to coincide with dawn’s crack – at least once a week, for 9 months of the year. (No taping the game for me: it had to be “live”.) I would stumble, sleepy eyed (and often hungover), into the kitchen and set a pot of strong coffee to boil, press a couple of bagels into the toaster. Then I’d flick the TV channel to Fox Soccer Plus – hopefully as the vacuous American talking heads would submit to the English match commentators.

I was raised Catholic, and went to a Protestant boarding school. So I’ve suffered enough religious services in a litany of churches to recognize that this ritual of mine had become ‘holy’. Supporting Arsenal had become my religion, and I was a fervent devotee. I had my sacraments – the coffee and bagel – and I worshiped at the glowing altar of the Church of Arsenal. I sat through both halves of the sermon; enraptured by the Gospels of Patron Saints Thierry, Dennis, Patrick and Tony.

Arsenal OnT V


Although I was thousands of miles away, I felt a connectedness, a one-ness, with the thousands of Arsenal fans at the stadium, and with the countless millions, like myself, watching the game on TV around the globe. The word inspire comes from the Latin – meaning “to breathe in”. And that’s what Arsenal is, for me. Inspiring. Like the Holy Spirit, it breathes an alive-ness into me, as it no doubt does to all Gooners, everywhere…

Last year, I finally moved to a time zone that made my church-going schedule far more amenable. Instead of coffee and a bagel, I now down G’nT’s. And sometimes eat. My new matchday experience is not quite as austere or subdued as those 7:30am services in Los Angeles, silently screaming for my team while the world slept around me. In fact: the addition of alcohol has made me more evangelistic in my response to the goings-on those many miles away – and makes me feel even more connected.

As with anything in life – if you feed your passion, it takes on a life of its own. It becomes a hungry monster – demanding more and more from you; it roams through the voids in your existence, pours into them, and proliferates. Watching games was no longer enough. Having spent a lot of time on forums in the States, I started tweeting, ‘hanging out’, real-time, with the thousands of Gunners who inhabit Twitter, trying to satisfy my growing urge to engage.

I then started this blog – needing a bigger outlet for my wacky Arsenal musings than Twitter’s 140 characters allowed. I hooked up with a few like-minded disciples and we launched, in an attempt to spread the Gunner Gospel to more unwashed masses.

But something was missing. I realized that I was seeing through a lens, darkly – and I burned, I yearned, to see my gods face-to-face. Live. In person.

Every great religion has its pilgrimage. The Hindu faithful flock to the Ganges, to bathe in the filthy, cleansing waters of the Mother River. The Muslims have their Hajj – heading to Mecca in their millions, following in the footsteps of Ibrahim. The Judao-Christians converge on Jerusalem or Bethlehem – the holy cities of their scriptures. Catholics flock to the Vatican, to see the head of their church in action.

Mine was long overdue.


Is There A Difference?

Having missed the opportunity to watch an Arsenal game at Highbury in 1992 – turning it down to see a Stevie Wonder concert instead – I started to plan my trip to Ashburton Grove. And with a change in my work schedule, commitments in LA, a friendly fixture list, and some massive help from a few incredible Gooners – my pilgrimage started taking shape…

(To be continued…)


* The B’s:

Batman | Beethoven | Beatles | Jeff Buckley | Banksy | Buddha

Borges | Bertolucci | Basquiat | Beckenbauer | Burroughs | Braque

Basie | Bohr | Basho | Bardot | Beckham | Brubeck

Browning | Baryshnikov | Beckett | Bergman | Brecht | Bernstein

Björk | Barber | Buonarotti | Blake | Bukowski | Blanc

Bogart | Borg | Bowie | Brahms | Bugs | Bradman


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