Do Arsenal need to address the atmosphere at the Emirates?

Former Arsenal attacker Andrey Arshavin criticised the atmosphere at the Emirates this week but should the Gunners consider addressing his claims?

'The atmosphere was weird. It felt like the crowd was at the theatre - good seats, expensive tickets and they wanted to see a show, not to support the team,' stated the Russian, as reported by ESPN, who spent four years in North London bisecting two spells at his current club Zenit Saint Petersburg.

'It was like there was no advantage in playing at home. Many of the players - the leaders that were left from the club's time at Highbury - often complained that the atmosphere in the stands was so bad.'

This is not the first occasion the Emirates’ atmosphere has been in question and, regardless of the fact Arshavin is a former player who saw his status and opportunity reduced over the course of the four-year period under Arsene Wenger, there is perhaps some base to his assertions.

I have been to many games up and down the country and abroad, including games at the old Highbury ground and the relatively brand spanking new Emirates, otherwise known as Ashburton Grove and I believe there will be many Arsenal fans who would understand objectively that what Arshavin is saying has some basis in truth.

Incidentally, Manchester United have recently undergone some changes at Old Trafford with programs and initiatives (both fan-led and club-run) with the intention of improving the atmosphere in what they call the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ – it is interesting that Arshavin also chose to describe the Emirates as like a theatre.

Many of you will also remember when former United captain Roy Keane released his book, ridiculing and criticising the prawn sandwich eating brigade at Old Trafford – I think it’s an interesting topic that, at it’s core, comes down to issues surrounding class and culture.

Football in Britain has predominantly been a past time of what you might describe as working class people and, generally speaking, white working class men. If you think of the terraces and the grounds of yesteryear, we are predominantly talking about white British working class boys and men up until about as recently as the 1960s when there slowly and steadily began to be more diversity of race, nationality, socio-economic background and, working towards the present, gender and sexuality integrating within that traditionally white heterosexual working class male domain.

Clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham have for the last century tended to school players (boys) from the surrounding east and north London areas and that’s also where the fan base is predominantly based – its only until clubs became run much more like corporations with all the branding and so on that it incorporates that the fan base and the intake of players has become more diverse and globalised.

For example, Arsenal in the last decade have brought in a number of players of African, Asian, Central and South American, Middle Eastern origin or heritage and, furthermore, the club has seen a huge rise in popularity and support in those areas and, more generally, all over the world.

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Meanwhile, the Gunners have by far the best and most successful women’s team in the country, if not the continent, and they have an unusually high number of players and fans of different religious beliefs and practices as well as obviously race and ‘class’ which, in this country, still remains a very touchy subject and one which unsettles people from across the spectrum.

When Keane talks about the prawn sandwiches, he’s touching (I believe) on the same thing as Arshavin does with his ‘theatre’ description – these are two signifiers of middle or upper class (however ridiculous that may sound in 2013 when prawns and theatre trips are no longer symbols of affluence any more than a widescreen TV or shiny new Rolex is – these days we have deferred payment schemes and installment plans and, although there has never been a greater gap between the top 1% and the other 99%, class is not necessarily something as divisive and defined as it was.) I consider myself working class and I eat prawns and go to the theatre. I'm sure I'm not the only one - it’s relative.

What’s interesting and also slightly ironic is these two multi-millionaires (no judgement) criticising the relatively much less affluent people who, in general (other than the small number of diplomats and whoever else in the directors box) pay good money to come to see a fantastic game of football – yes, we want to see a show, we want to be thrilled, we want to be entertained – what is football anyway if not a distraction, it’s not exactly humanitarian is it? – but, more than anything, we want the team to win. The fans go home happy whether it’s a 1-0 win from an own goal or a 7-6 showboating extravaganza.

People come from all across the world to see Arsenal play at the Emirates – they come from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures and, low and behold, not every single person in the stands is a white heterosexual working class male these days. In some cultures it’s considered rude and obnoxious – a serious social faux pas – to even talk loudly, never mind raise your voice and shout expletives with your shirt off. It’s a different culture, that’s all. There’s nothing wrong either way. If the players feel less motivated because of perhaps a less aggressive and abrasive crowd that’s their problem.

Women and children are in attendance these days – perhaps the greater regard for and consideration of other people’s social standards and cultural norms is a good thing. It doesn’t mean the fans have lost their passion – does a straight white Christian working class boy from Islington in the 1960s support Arsenal any more or less passionately than a gay black Muslim women over for the weekend from Dubai sitting in the directors box eating a prawn sandwich does? No, she might just be a little less vocal about it. Maybe not. Who knows?

Football as a past time has changed and probably for the better – it’s more inclusive, it’s more reflective of society as a whole and it’s more in alignment with the times and the social attitudes that go with them. When I read about the ten white male Charlton Athletic fans intimidating and verbally abusing people on a train that were convicted and sentenced this week, it made me rethink my feelings about the Emirates. I had considered it a bit of a tame atmosphere than say, for example, when I’ve been to Millwall’s Den.

I think I’d rather have a nice, clean, modern stadium that you can take your family to and not have to worry about aggression and violence and verbal abuse and racism and testosterone overload than I would a stadium from the 1960s and, while we're at it, I'd prefer the Emirates any day of the week than the Petrovsky Stadium in St Petersburg in the Vladamir Putin-era. If Arshavin feels more comfortable and motivated there, that's his business. Personally, I think I'd be intimidated and uncomfortable the second I sat down.

There’s a reason for the nostalgia, of course, and Highbury was a great ground but there are a number of very good reasons why they are relics of the past. Football has changed. Arsenal have changed and, naturally, the fans have to. The only constant is the passion – it just manifests differently at the Emirates in 2013 compared to how it did at Highbury when it was built pre-World War I. Things change and mostly for the better. Deal with it. Roll with the times. There's no right or wrong way to express your passion and support your team.

image: © wonker

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