Many of us remember the day at Highbury 17 years ago when Arsenal brought along their own ref, Paul Danson. They’ve done it again. Walter Broeckx*, in our Arsenal “Who are You?” hot seat and hooked on the Gunners since boyhood, is not only a qualified ref in his native Belgium but is responsible for the Untold Referees section of the soaraway fan site Untold Arsenal**. We had a lively exchange of views with Gooners when he came up with data suggesting Sunderland had the benefit of dodgy match officials’ decisions last season and that northern bias on the part of refs might be to blame. Who better to invite along to give an Arsenal perspective, Ozil and all, on Saturday’s return to proper football – and to defend those eccentric views? …
You must be licking your lips at the prospect of an easy three points at the Stadium of Light after, Villa apart, your decent start to the season and our dismal one.
The last seasons, a visit to Sunderland wasn’t really a walk in the park for Arsenal. I remember last season a nail biting affair when Arsenal went down to 10 men and had to fight for their lives to hold on to the lead. And we dropped a few points in the seasons before so it is not an easy ground recently. And Arsenal usually finds it hard to focus again after an international break. But with the spirit in the team we have found since a few months and our defenders doing a great job most of the time I hope we can keep Sunderland from scoring.
You’ll still be over the moon after beating Spurs but how do you rationalise that opening day defeat?
Yes you could say that when writing this I still am very happy about the derby win. Our opening day defeat was down to various reasons. We lost Arteta in the build up and he is vital for the way we play. He brings balance to our team and we missed him badly in that game. With Flamini back in we can replace him better. So the balance was missing in midfield in that game leaving too much space for Agbonlahor who used it well. I must say that we weren’t that happy with the way the ref handled the game. Certainly the way he gave the cards was rather annoying.
Do you regard the failure to sign Suarez as a massive setback because of his undoubted ability, or are you just happy not to have to accommodate all that grim baggage?
Some players have that genius touch combined with some madness. I think Di Canio in his playing days was such a player. I have known Suarez from his days in Holland and he also was combining those two things. Brilliant madness one could say. From a football point of view I would take him any day. For his ‘off field antics on the field’ he is someone that needs a great manager to keep him under control. I think Wenger could be such a manager. But when his madness strikes he is out of control and nobody can stop him.
Problem with Suarez is that if he would do something stupid again you can lose a lot of money because of a long suspension. So it would have been a risky player to spend that much money on. The feeling is double of course. I think at Arsenal he could have been a 30+ goal scorer or a 20+ suspension player.
I must say that I don’t have such fears with the arrival of Özil. He is a top player with a top attitude. And cost less. So feel more happy with him arriving. And for Arsenal it is a turning the corner moment I think. Due to building the Emirates and paying off the debts we couldn’t keep our best players. But with buying Özil from Real Madrid it seems that it is not our turn to start buying players from the top teams. I have been told by people at the club that the believe in the young players we have nurtured like Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott, Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain is very big and that they now will try to go for very specific targets in the future. Those players are difficult to get but they can make a difference. So maybe you will have the chance to have a first look at Özil.
I am known as one of your manager’s admirers. Have you ever been tempted by the Wenger Out lobby and why (or why not)?
I am a massive admirer of Wenger myself. And it was easy to love him in the days we won trophies. And even more in the year he won us the title and we were unbeaten. But the thing is that in those years without trophies he has done far more for Arsenal than he did in the years we won things. We have build the Emirates and we paid and are still paying the same amount of money teams like Chelsea and Manchester City could spend on players. They bought for 500.000.000 on players and even more. We have and are spending that money on our stadium. And I don’t think you can find a better stadium in England for the moment. Build on time and within the budget.
And yet Wenger kept us against all odds in the top 4. Most other clubs that build a new stadium went to lower leagues after building. Wenger kept us in the top 4. I know it is not a real trophy but he has kept the club alive with almost no budget in his hands and kept us close to teams with unlimited budget. It saddens me a lot that some of our own fans cannot see that he is the man that has kept us alive. So, no I have never felt tempted to join them and my work on the Untold Arsenal website is driven by my support for the man who deserves a statue outside the Emirates when he retires. He has his faults as we all do, but I think nobody can question his loyalty and love for Arsenal.
Name the top four this season, in order, and who will go down. Say where our two clubs will finish if not in either list and tell us what else you think Arsenal might achieve this season in the various cups
Top 4: 1. Arsenal 2. Chelsea 3. Manchester City 4. Tottenham Hotspur
Okay I admit I am a super optimist and always think we can win the league. And with Özil just having joined us I really believe we can upset the football world.
Bottom 3: 18. Stoke 19. Hull 20. Crystal Palace. Newly promoted teams usually have it difficult with one team doing rather well. I think Cardiff will be reasonably safe. I fear for Hull and Crystal Palace a bit as I don’t think they have enough resources to compete. And the reason I put Stoke in there is because I really don’t like them. More of a wish than based on strength I admit.
I think Sunderland will come in around place 12-15. I think losing my compatriot Mignolet was a bad thing and you might suffer a bit on the goal scoring front. But I do think you will have enough to play yourself to safety.
I think that with the right additions we might see Arsenal going in for the FA cup also. But this is always tricky as you don’t know who you will be drawn against. And our exit of the cups last season was rather painful so even being drawn against lower league opposition is no longer a guarantee for success. But building on a strong defence you can get far so the hope is there. Sunderland could also get far and I remember us losing at your ground two seasons ago in the FA cup. Painful memory it was. Who knows why don’t we meet each other at Wembley in May?
You are heavily involved in the Untold Arsenal project on refereeing, Untold Referees. What is your response to the criticisms here of your assessment of Sunderland’s supposedly charmed record with bad decisions last season (the main gripe being that we, or more accurately I, considered the notion of northern bias to be preposterous, ruining the otherwise rational, if debatable, nature of your argument)?
If I can start with that article, I do admit that looking back at it, this wasn’t the best thing to have written in that article. It made it sound as if I singled out Sunderland. And that wasn’t what I meant to do. As we were doing the teams more or less in alphabetical order Sunderland was on of the first clubs from the North we did and when seeing the numbers I remembered that we had studied where the refs come from in the PL and it is rather amazing that almost all the refs who do the PL are from the North of England. There are no Southern refs to be found. And that itself is rather strange as the South of England and the London region is the most populated and yet they have no refs. That itself is of course not related to Sunderland as a club at all, it is more a total geographic thing but it somehow entered my mind and I wrote it down.
You must however remember that the whole project on refereeing is not put up to really single out teams. It is more being a kind of watchdog of the PGMOL, the company that runs the refs in the PL. Every negative comment I give in regards with refereeing is aimed at the PGMOL in fact. Of course I can imagine that when I criticise the refs in an article by giving an example of some team, that supporters of this team will see it as criticising their team. It’s a thin line but I am mostly out there to criticise the ref. Of course when I see from the reviews that a team is getting a big advantage from the refs when they commit errors I will call it that way. But apart from when a team would bribe the refs, I don’t blame the teams really. I just blame the refs.
And if not dealt with in that answer, do you accept that your aim to appear objective is damaged by the origins of the project, namely a declared aim to show that Arsenal are unfairly treated by match officials?
Of course it is. I am a referee but I also am an Arsenal supporter. Now I can give you all kind of examples that I could be not biased in the referee reviews but there is always suspicion. The thing is that with me you know that I am an Arsenal supporter. But do we know who the PL refs support? My decisions are from the outside and don’t affect the outcome of the game. But that ref on the field with his secret favourite team can do his thing with nobody being able to stop him.
But I do admit it opens ourselves up to criticism and can lead to saying we are biased in our reviews. We did the reviews for 2 years with only Arsenal supporting referees. And we found a bias against Arsenal in both seasons. And mainly because of the criticism of us being Arsenal supporters we went out to search for referees who support other teams. And the referee decisions website was born.
Last season we did reviews with refs from all over the world: refs from England, the continent, Australia, North and South America. But the most important thing was that only 35 per cent of the referees who reviewed games for us were Arsenal supporters. The majority was supporting other teams. And I must say that to my big surprise at the end of the season we found that looking at the numbers the team that had suffered most from wrong referee decisions was Arsenal. I personally had the impression that last season Arsenal had a bit more luck with referees, but and again I want to point at the fact that 65 per cent of the reviewers were not Arsenal supporters came to the conclusion that it was even worse than the season before.
Back to Arsenal v Sunderland. Do any past encounters, home or away, stick in the mind?
The last minute equaliser of Sunderland a few seasons ago. That is one of the painful memories. We should have won that game even playing with 10 men for a long time but we couldn’t finish it. And then in the extra time of extra time you equalised. I was gutted. But we took revenge when Thierry Henry scored the winner in extra time on his short return two seasons ago. So it shows it has been rather a close affair between our clubs in the last seasons.
I also was at the Emirates 3 seasons ago when we had a 0-0 final result. We scored a valid goal by Arshavin but it was wrongly ruled out for offside. Like I said before it usually are close games.
Not too many recent links between our clubs, unless Steve Bould and Stefan Schwarz count as recent or we include Anthony Stokes (I may well have missed someone and, of course, Kevin Phillips was a Gooner when young). But any thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the region, Di Canio?
I do admit as I am not from England I have never been to Sunderland in my life. I just can’t seem to get past London when I come to England. Sunderland the club is one that has a great history but recently they have fallen behind a bit. Each club has ups and downs in their history so it’s possible that in a few years time you could come back. But alas with all the oil money in the game these days this is very difficult to achieve.
I think Di Canio is a good manager and that he is a bit like the fans: very passionate. Something us Arsenal supporters are being criticised for, for not being passionate enough. Or being too critical even when things are going fine but when you have been dining in fancy restaurants too much it’s not that easy to have a regular burger in a burger restaurant I think. But having a bad spell for a while might be a good thing for supporters. It makes you appreciate every success a bit more. But it is in hard times that the real supporters stay loyal to their team.
Who are the greatest players you have seen, or wish you’d been old enough to have seen, in Arsenal colours and who should have been allowed nowhere near them?
As I am from Belgium it is not really a regular story but I became an Arsenal fan in 1979 because of Liam Brady. I remember standing in the North Bank in my first game at Highbury and saw that magical left foot of him producing the most extraordinary things. But despite all the Brady magic it was Wolverhampton Wanderers who won the game 0-1. But I had lost my heart to that team playing in red and white just because he was the best player I had ever seen. I also think it is a great thing that I started supporting a losing team. Shows I am not really a glory hunter.
Thierry Henry is the greatest of course. And Dennis Bergkamp was another player who I loved a lot. If you have been able to see players like them play for your team you are a blessed supporter. I feel blessed in that way.
About players who never should have been allowed near the team I don’t have really any of them. I ‘m just a guy who supports every player who is playing and wish him to do well.
Your own highs and lows as an Arsenal supporter?
The biggest low was losing the CL final. Having to play it with 10 men almost the whole game and then only having to lose it in the final 15 minutes was tragic. And for me personally losing Cesc Fabregas was a personal low. I had his name on my shirt and that is something I never do but he was that good in my opinion. Now I only have my own name on the back of my shirt. As I know I will not change team.
My personal meeting with Thomas Vermaelen our captain was also a very great moment for me. He comes from the same region in Belgium where I am from and I got the chance of talking to him when he was awarded a special prize by the authorities of the village where he was born and where his parents still live. We were also invited to that ceremony as I am one of the board members of the Arsenal Belgium supporters’ club. He is a very humble person who doesn’t like the spotlights that much.
The highest high for me was the last day of the invincible season. Having won the title was great but doing it unbeaten was a special moment. That still is the proudest moment in my Arsenal career as a supporter. An achievement that I hope will last for many many years.
Is it important to you that Arsenal is perceived as a proper football club, or are you perfectly comfortable with the idea of it being a global brand attracting allegiance from people who might struggle to place the Emirates on a map of London?
I probably was one of the forerunners if you look back at it. Being from and living in Belgium and supporting a team in London was not that much done in those days. And not always easy to keep up to date with everything. So in principle I have nothing against people from outside England supporting for English teams.
Since the PL has started football has changed and it now is a global brand and the teams on top of that attract fans from all over the world. I do know London a bit as apart from my visits to Arsenal I also have spend some 7 or 8 short holidays in the city I call my second home. But in a way I am lucky because I had the resources to come over and get to know London more. But I can understand that for some people this is impossible. Lack of money preventing them to do like I did.
But I don’t think that can stop them from loving a football team. For many people it maybe is some kind of escape from their miserable lives? I consider them proper supporters and I think most of them would love to live closer to their club.
Another great thing for me personally is that in the last years and with the internet I have build a big friendship with people from all over the world who share the same passion about Arsenal. I have people with whom I almost speak on a daily basis all over the world. And it sure brings people together in a way. That is a good thing. And to be honest I support my team in a strong way but I am not going too far in the tribalism we see at clubs. I can speak with Tottenham supporters and don’t have to call them names or laugh with them. Apart from on match days maybe. I don’t see why I should hate someone because they have chosen or live has chosen their team for them. We are all human beings after all.
Which aspect of football most inspires you, and which one most annoys or appals?
Bringing individual skill together with team work. A team with 11 Messis would probably win nothing. Just as a team with 11 Bartons. You need both of them in the right mixture to win something. Doing that is so difficult so whoever can achieve this is someone who inspires me and who I admire.
What annoys me most in football is that money is been thrown in. Teams like Chelsea, City, PSG, Monaco and others like Real Madrid who spend money as if they print it themselves. I really cannot respect such teams. I don’t mind that teams spending money on transfers. That is part of football. But I want clubs only to spend the money they have earned themselves from tickets, transfers, shirt sponsors. I would feel dirty if Arsenal would become a club like the ones I just mentioned with an owner that just throws his own money at the club.
And I don’t mind players being paid good money. But the amounts players are paid right now is something that makes me sick. It is getting obscene.
Club versus country: who wins for you and why?
Always club first. I really dislike international football and Uefa and Fifa. I think that Arsenal might have lost a few trophies in the last years because of our most important players playing international friendly games and then getting injured. I think Van Persie was a specialist in this.
And also because I miss the Arsenal game during the international break and feel lost without us playing in the weekend. So I am always very happy when such a break is over and certainly when we haven’t lost any player.
Will you be at our game? if not, how will you keep tabs and what will be the score?
No I will be sitting at home to watch the game. As I live in Belgium near Antwerp even going to the Emirates is a 24hours trip affair at times. With the Eurostar we can limit it to around 16-18 hours. So Sunderland is out of my reach a bit.
But in Belgium we have a sports channel that gives around 4-5 PL games live. With Mignolet still at Sunderland I would have been assured that they would show this game as they focus on the teams that have Belgian players.
But if they don’t pick this game I will be watching on the internet. The only thing that can prevent me seeing an Arsenal game live is if I have to do my own game as a referee at the same time. It only happens 2-3 times in a season and then I keep in touch with my phone and livescore. I don’t even miss any friendly game or a game in the pre season tour.
* Walter Broeckx on himself:
I’m 52 and work for a local administration where I deliver building permits and check the quality of houses. I am married and father of 4 children. My only hobby is football. Football rules my life as I am a referee and assistant referee, and I passed this on to my 2 eldest sons who also are doing this great hobby. I write for the website Untold Arsenal and referee decisions. All these things take up so much time I haven’t got any time left for other possible hobbies.
I became an Arsenal supporter in 1979 when our school travelled to London and our teacher had told us which teams played at home in that weekend. Arsenal was one of them. We went there with a few of my friends and Brady did the trick that day and together with my brother who was also with me we became life long Arsenal supporters.
** Untold Arsenal – http://untoldarsenal.com/ – is currently on an emergency footing after “severe and prolonged” cyber attacks. It is still top of the Soccerlinks hit list.
*** Help yourself: help Salut! Sunderland. The Spanish book on Ozil and the Liam Brady Kindle edition are at our Amazon link – http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/8415726147/salusund-21 for Juan Ignacio Garcia-Ochoa on Ozil – but, starting there, you can make all your other Amazon purchases too.
Interview: Colin Randall
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