It is an excuse for not doing your homework that has never been tried, so no one yet knows if it will work. “Just couldn’t get round to that geology project, sir; Salut! Sunderland were breathing down my neck demanding a piece about this Saturday’s game at the Emirates.”
My professional role in Fatima al Shamsi‘s life was to guide her earliest steps in journalism at The National, the new national newspaper of her country, the UAE. My solemn personal duty was to turn her into, if not quite a Mackem, a sneaking regarder of all things Sunderland – and not just Arsenal, Barcelona and Brazil. Did I succeed? We’ll see. Fatima*, pictured above (right), is the first correspondent to take part in Who Are They? from New York, where she is studying; our thanks to her for her thoughtful, emphatically (for the most part) non-girlie answers – and to the geology prof for his understanding….
Ever since destiny made me an Arsenal supporter I had pestered my father to take me to Highbury. This request didn’t seem too preposterous to me when I lived in Paris.
After all, people had swum the English Channel; surely I could get there one weekend for a match. But despite my whining I had to be content with two World Cup games during the France 98, and few treks to the Parc des Princes to watch PSG perform forgettably.
Then the unthinkable happened, Sunday May 7 2006, from my apartment in New York City, I watched as Arsenal played their last game at Highbury. I hadn’t made it there, and never would. I decided to take matters into my own hands; if I was ever to see Arsenal play. I would somehow have to get myself to London.
Weeks before my 18th birthday, I started saving up. In a year, I had enough set aside. All I now needed to do was convince my parents that a long weekend in the UK for the sake of football mid-semester was reasonable and that I hadn’t lost my mind.
Surprisingly, this was a lot easier than I had expected. “It’s your money.” my father laughed. No arguing, no justification, no warning about going to a foreign country that I had never been to, there was no need for my well thought out speech. My mother didn’t object although she seemed slightly more sceptical. But I couldn’t blame her since I had spent the previous two years declaring that I was going to marry Fabregas and that it was simply a matter of meeting him.
My roommates at university thought I was insane. But I was only going for a few days. I didn’t understand the big deal. Did no one understand the huge significance? This was going to be my first ARSENAL game!
I got my visa. Bought my plane tickets. Got my match tickets. It so happened to be a game against Manchester United. It was fate, I thought; my first live game would be a parallel of the first ever Arsenal game I had watched on TV.
I arrived in London on a Friday morning overflowing with anticipation and was greeted by my best friend from the UAE, who studies in Kingston. She comes from a household of Liverpool supporters but absolutely abhors anything to do with football.
“I don’t believe you are dragging me to a match,” she yelled all of Friday and Saturday. “I hate football and you’ve become just as bad as those crazy hooligans!”
Squashed between thousands of supporters clad in red and white, we made the Tube journey to the Emirates. It was absolutely glorious, glimmering in the early afternoon sun.
There was something surreal about moving with a huge crowd, all heading in one direction. The energy was electric. I bolted in and when I came out to face the field it was like magic; after all those years my soul was finally at peace. I had made it.
The game was a sensational 2-2 draw with goals by Fabregas, Rooney, Ronaldo and a last minute equaliser by Gallas that had the whole stadium on its feet.
To make matters even better my best friend admitted to having a great time, despite the wonderfully foul-mouthed hooligans seated right in front of us. And I got the extreme pleasure and satisfaction of knowing that despite a life of subjugation to crazy Liverpool fans, it took an Arsenal experience to make her appreciate football!
While my ludicrous travels ended abruptly as I boarded a plane that Monday to try and make it in time for an exam the following day – setting my wedding plans with a certain Spaniard back a little – my experience confirmed to me that there is absolutely nothing like watching a game in a stadium.
A year later, as I found myself with this same friend in Abu Dhabi watching the first Sunderland game of the season (facing a giant You’ll Never Walk Alone flag that drapes over the television in the living room). After a summer of working as an intern at The National and learning about Sunderland, being transported into the world of SAFC supporters via ALS’s More 24 hour SAFC People and reading (and being told by a certain senior editor) much about the alleged spirit of the Stadium of Light, I turned to her and suggested: “So how about it then, this year when I come visit you, we trek up north for a game?”
Although my life was threatened, I’m sure she’d be up for the adventure.
Salut! Sunderland‘s questions will be answered in the next instalment….
* Fatima al Shamsi is studying environmental science and human rights at Columbia University, New York. She also finds time to write a weekly column for The National and has featured in both Salut! Sunderland and A Love Supreme because, despite her best attempts above, she developed a soft spot for SAFC while working at the paper as an intern last summer. See also: “Last vestiges of a man’s world”, and
“Coming soon: the red and white striped abaya”: part one and part two