Sharuko On Saturday
ON August 30, 2002, Arsenal’s revolution swept English football into a new world when the Gunners became the first club to field nine black players in their starting XI.
Captain Patrick Vieira, Lauren, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Gilberto Silva, Sylvian Wiltord, Thierry Henry, Nwanko Kanu and Kolo Toure all made the starting XI at Elland Road.
And, they were simply irresistible that day, with all their goals, predictably, coming from their Black Brigade.
Kanu grabbed a brave while Toure and Henry were also on target as the Gunners transformed Elland Road, into their slaughter chamber, with hosts Leeds United slumping to a 1-4 humiliation.
In subsequent years, culminating in Arsenal winning a record 14th FA Cup last Saturday, under the captaincy of a double-scorer wearing the number 14 jersey, the two figures (one and four) would play a dominant part in the Gunners’ adventure.
That landmark victory at Elland Road meant Arsenal had scored in 47 consecutive games, breaking the record which had been set by Chesterfield, 71 years earlier.
The Gunners also smashed Nottingham Forest’s top-flight league record, back then, of 22 away games without a defeat.
And, Manchester United’s Premiership record, back then, of 29 league matches without defeat, was also matched that day.
Arsenal had come a long way, since fielding their first black player when rightback, Brendon Batson, featured for them in the 0-2 league defeat to Newcastle United in March 1972.
Born in Grenada, Batson arrived in England with his family, at the age of nine, and was signed by the Gunners as a schoolboy.
For 84 years, since their formation in 1886, the Gunners had never fielded a black footballer until they threw in Batson that day in March 1972.
Today, he is one of the most respected voices in English football, serving as a special adviser to the Football Association, and a Trustee of the Professional Footballers Association.
Batson’s landmark appearance for the Gunners, in 1972, came exactly 86 years after Arthur Wharton became the first black professional to feature in the English top-flight league for Preston North End in 1886.
The goalkeeper, who was born in Ghana, lost his way at the turn of the ‘90s and, after becoming an alcoholic, he was penniless when he died in 1930.
He was buried in an unmarked grave, in Edlington, South Yorkshire, before a tombstone was put in the ‘90s as part of the ‘’Football Unites Racism Divides’’ project.
Today, you can also see his picture, in an exhibition of British Sporting Heroes, at the National Portrait Gallery.
The Gunners have always challenged the boundaries of the football establishment — on Valentine’s Day in 2005, they became the first English club to field a Match Day squad made up entirely of foreign footballers.
While the first Foreign XI was fielded by Chelsea, on Boxing Day in 2009 at Southampton, Arsenal became the first English club to name an entire Foreign 18, with all the first XI, and substitutes, drawn from outside the British shores.
There are many Gunners fans who argue, even to this day, that they were wooed into the Arsenal corner because they were charmed by the club’s commitment to give black players, as fair a chance as possible, to showcase their talents.
They argue Arsenal were the game-changers, in terms of appreciating the flood of black talented footballers, in a game where these athletes used to be given raw deals, simply because of the colour of their skin.
It’s probably difficult for the fans, who started following European football in the ‘90s, and in the new millennium, to appreciate that there used to be a time, back in the days, when this game was an extension of hell for the black players.
The dark days when some Liverpool fans would even take the strange initiative to write to John Barnes, amid negotiations for him to move from Watford to the Reds, to reconsider his decision to join their club, simply because he was black.
There is even an iconic image of Barnes back-healing a banana, which had been thrown towards him by a racist Everton fan, at Goodison Park, as others shouted “N****rpool,’’ in a racist makeover of the beautiful name of Liverpool.
“Consequently, during what can now be seen as English football’s racist ‘peak,’ Everton acquired a reputation for being one of the most racist clubs in the country,’’ an Everton-supporting blogger wrote on the website www.grandoldteam.com.
“Arsenal’s Gus Caesar was subjected to a series of racially charged chants including “shoot that n****r” and monkey noises as he warmed up at Goodison Park.
“However, it was Liverpool’s signing of John Barnes from Watford in 1987, which typified this era of racial hostility. Barnes’ arrival on Merseyside was met with staggering degrees of racism from certain Everton fans.
“In the Derby, bananas were slung from the crowd in Barnes’ direction, as some Everton fans proudly wallowed in the whiteness of their XI, chanting ‘Everton Are White.’’
AND, THEN, ARSENE WENGER, AND THE GUNNERS, CAME ALONG
For some, Arsene Wenger’s legacy, in English football, will just start, and end, with silverware — three league championships and seven FA Cups, in his 22-years at the club.
For others, it will be about this charming football professor, who changed Arsenal, and made them play football with a swagger, in what was a beautiful transformation, from the old song, “one nil to the boring Gunners.”
But, serious students of the game will remember him as a football missionary who, like that OUTsurance advert on DStv, didn’t just change one thing but went on to change everything.
For some of us, even though he represented the ultimate rival back then, we will remember him as a genius who changed the global perception of African footballers.
The one who made others believe that our boys were not what they perceived — athletes who were generally not good enough, to play at the top level of the game, usually very lazy and, by and large, a people who couldn’t be relied upon to commit themselves to the highest demands of professionalism.
Wenger, more than any other coach, changed the perception that our boys couldn’t be top professionals, the mentality that our boys couldn’t be relied upon, the narrative that our boys were not really good enough and the flawed opinion that our boys couldn’t lead.
He was the coach who could trust the captaincy of a club like Arsenal, on the shoulders of someone who had been born in Dakar, Senegal, Patrick Vieira, the same player who had been restricted to just two appearances at AC Milan before being brought to the Gunners.
He was the coach who plucked Thierry Henry from his nightmare at Juventus, where he had been played on the flanks, and even as a wingback, scoring just three goals in 16 appearances.
Wenger transformed Thierry into a striker, who some consider the finest the Premiership has ever seen, and now the French World Cup winner has a statue outside the Emirates.
Thierry was a key member of the Invincibles, the Gunners who powered their way into immortality, by completing the entire league season unbeaten, on their way to the league championship in 2004.
They bettered the record, which had been set by Preston North End, who completed the entire season, 27 league and cup games, without defeat, during the 1888/1889 season.
And, as fate might have it, that Preston North End side featured the first black professional footballer, to play in the English top-flight league, Wharton, while the Gunners of 2004 also had a huge influence of black professional footballers.
While Wenger was largely an unwanted character, by the time he walked away from the Gunners, amid protests from some of the club’s fans demanding that he leave, his legacy, as the ultimate game-changer, in European football, will never be questioned.
He was the one who plucked George Weah, from the obscurity of playing league football in Cameroon, and gave him the platform at Monaco from where King George would go on to become the only African footballer to win the Ballon d’Or.
“Besides God, I think that without Arsene, there was no way I would have made it in Europe,’’ King George said, adding the coach ‘’took care of me like his son.’’
Two years ago, Weah, who is now the President of Liberia, gave Wenger the highest honour when the coach was inducted into the country’s Order of Distinction and given the title of Knight Grand Commander of the Humane Order of African Redemption.
DON’T CALL ME A PROPHET, IT’S JUST THE WAY THINGS ARE
Remember Leeds’s 1-4 thrashing, at home, at the hands of an Arsenal side which, for the first time in the history of English football, featured nine black players in their first XI on August 30, 2002?
Remember I said this was key in shattering some myths about footballers of colour?
Well, some will probably say it was something written in the stars because, one way or another, the numbers one and four (14), have been a dominant factor in the adventure.
It’s like being charmed by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the poster boy image, the infectious smile, the great athleticism, how does one find a way to resist that, if you are a true lover of African football, and the advancement of black footballers?
How do you resist the glamour of that searing pace, usually a weapon for greatness for elite Olympic athletes, now being paraded, as a weapon of mass destruction, on a football field?
How do you resist that deadly accuracy, which has made him a goal-scoring machine, the one a football institution like Arsenal now turns to, for both salvation, and redemption?
How is it possible, even if he plays for the Gunners, you can ignore that composure, which no coach can ever teach, which only greatness can only impart, which helped him transform the hallowed turf of Wembley, into his playground, last Saturday?
He scored twice, for goodness sake, in that FA Cup final, every goal, it appeared, a gift to every African football fan, another confirmation, if any was needed, that our boys had come of age.
He was wearing jersey number 14, Thierry’s number, and he powered Arsenal to their 14th FA Cup success story in the final against Chelsea last Saturday.
Wenger turned to Thierry, to come in as a direct long-term replacement for Ian Wright who, after leaving Arsenal, chose the number 14 jersey at West Ham.
Thierry’s former pal at the Clairefontaine national football academy, Nicolas Anelka, had arrived at the Gunners earlier and, by the time he retired from national duty, Anelka had 14 international goals to his credit.
Exactly 14 years ago, Arsenal were rocked by the way Ashley Cole forced a move to Chelsea and, ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup final, the Gunners barred Aubameyang from being interviewed by the BBC.
Aubameyang, just like Cole before him 14 years earlier, had been reported to have tried to force a January move from the Gunners to Chelsea.
Exactly 14 years after the Invincibles, Wenger was invited to Monrovia to receive the country’s highest honour, by Weah, for his contributions to the football career of the man who later became his country’s President.
A month after that ceremony, Weah played for his country, for one last time, in a ceremonial match where the number 14 jersey, which he used to wear on national duty, was officially retired.
After being brought to Europe, to play for Monaco by Wenger, Weah spent 14 years playing for clubs in France, Italy and England.
If you are religious, you will probably also say there are three sets of 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David until captivity in Babylon and there are 14 generations from captivity in Babylon to Jesus Christ.
“The number 14 represents deliverance or salvation and is used 22 times in the Bible,’’ says the international bible study group.
There will certainly be a number of Gunners fans who will tell you their great Number 14s, from Thierry to Aubameyang, have provided salvation for their beloved club.
And, they will probably also tell you, it’s been written in the stars and that’s why Wenger, who changed everything, spent exactly 22 years at their beloved club.
Oh, by the way, Leeds, remember them, the very team destroyed 1-4 at home by that Arsenal side, which fielded nine black players in their starting line-up, are now back in the Premiership.
Argentine coach, Marcelo Biesla, eventually ended their 16-year wait for a return to the top-flight.
And, until his arrival at Elland Road, Leeds had tried 14 coaches — Kevin Blackwell, Dennis Wise, Gary McAllister, Simon Grayson, Neil Warnock, Brian McDermott, Dave Hockaday, Darko Milanic, Neil Redfearn, Uwe Rosler, Steve Evans, Garry Monk, Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom — without success.
Please, don’t call me a prophet, it’s just the way things are.
To God Be The Glory!
Peace to the GEPA Chief, the Big Fish, George Norton and all the Chakariboys in the struggle.
Come on United!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Bruno, Bruno, Bruno, Bruno, Bruno, Bruno!
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