Sports Nut

The Island of Arsenal

Will an American billionaire change the culture of England’s most glamorous soccer club?

Arsenal manager Arsene Wegner

It’s impossible to talk about Arsenal without talking about the je ne sais quoi of Arsenal, its ineffable Arsenal-ness, that special mélange of esprit and souffrance that sets Arsenal willfully and gloriously and somewhat ludicrously apart from every other soccer team in England. Arsenal plays the most stylish soccer, an intricate passing game of overlapping runs and constant movement. Arsenal suffers the most agonizing collapses: five years and counting without a trophy. Arsenal’s manager, Arsene Wenger, is one of soccer’s great self-dooming visionaries, a gaunt Frenchman who’d rather lose matches than sacrifice his beau ideal of how to play the game. “I have the impression of living on an island called Arsenal,” he once said. Wenger meant that he didn’t know his way around London, but it might as well have been the opening salvo in a philosophical tract. In the roughhouse, smash-the-ball-and-run English Premier League, Arsenal’s commitment to Wenger’s delicate passing scheme makes it a city on a hill.

At the moment, though, it’s a city under siege. The title drought, combined with Arsenal’s recent history of spectacular late-season implosions, has called Wenger’s philosophy into question. And now a change in the club’s ownership threatens to alter Arsenal’s essential teleology.On Monday, the news came down that Stan Kroenke, a plainspoken American billionaire and one of Arsenal’s major investors, had struck a deal with other shareholders to buy a majority of the club. Control of England’s most glamorous soccer team thus falls to the absolutely unglamorous real-estate developer behind the St. Louis Rams and the Denver Nuggets. The development wasn’t exactly unexpected—Kroenke has been wrangling for control of Arsenal for four years, maneuvering against the Uzbek industrial magnate Alisher Usmanov—but the start of the Kroenke era throws open the question of Arsenal’s identity and future. Is Wenger’s approach the right one? Will Kroenke shift the club’s focus toward pragmatism and at-all-costs winning? And if the club does transform under American leadership, will Arsenal still be Arsenal without its Arsenal-ness?

Kroenke’s coronation already represents a big change in culture. Before the American came along, Arsenal’s ownership structure was, appropriately, one of the weirdest in English sports. Other clubs are owned by single individuals (Chelsea) or staid corporations (Liverpool). Arsenal was owned by a lost scene from Casablanca. Most of the club’s 62,000 shares were divided among a florid group of aristocrats and upstarts; glancing over the board of directors was like watching the Simpsons’ Ship of Lost Souls” skit. There was a millionaire diamond dealer living as a tax exile in Switzerland. There was an Indian noblewoman, Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, who got her shares from her husband, Sir George Bracewell-Smith, who got them from his father, Sir Bracewell Smith, who was pickled in aspic during the reign of George V. There was a gentleman known, by choice, as “Sir Chips Keswick.”

Surprisingly, this little band did pretty well with Arsenal, mostly by hiring executives who were smart enough to run the club’s business affairs but savvy enough to leave the soccer side to Wenger. Partly because the boardroom was a democracy of sorts, it kept up excellent relations with the fans, who now own a small minority of the club and oppose a full takeover by Kroenke. (Arsenal’s cosmopolitan fan base, which includes Ray Davies, Nick Hornby, and, reportedly, Her Majesty the Queen, was possibly never a perfect fit for a Missouri businessman whose wife is a Wal-Mart heiress.)

This whole crazy contraption lurched into modernity in 2006, when Arsenal moved from its antiquated little park at Highbury to the gleaming new Emirates Stadium—more a spaceship than a sports arena, more a website than a spaceship—and cleverly offset the cost by converting the team’s old facility into a luxury apartment complex. For a long time, even after Kroenke and Usmanov started circling the club in 2007, it seemed as if the club could run this way forever—baronets at the center, flirting with predation by tycoons on the outside, and somehow continuing to field a top-class soccer team, like an Edith Wharton novel that dropped Jack Wilshere out the other side.

But of course it couldn’t last. This is the decade of the foreign billionaire in English soccer, and the American billionaire specifically. Arsenal will be the fifth Premier League club to go under American control since the mid-2000s (though Usmanov, who owns 27 percent of the shares, could still make trouble). Kroenke’s takeover coincides with mounting fan frustration over the team’s trophyless streak, which has featured increasingly excruciating breakdowns. Two defeats in the final of the Carling Cup. Consecutive high-stakes upendings by Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. The same late-season loss to a beatable team running over and over again, like a worn-out reel at a small-town movie theater.

This season has been the most crushing. In February, Arsenal was alive in all four major competitions, a rare feat. Early in that month, the team lost a 4-0 lead against Newcastle, a dazzling act of choking that had never before been achieved by a Premier League squad. Then they lost the Carling Cup final to lowly Birmingham, dramatically won the first leg of their Champions League quarter against Barcelona only to crash out in the second, and fizzled against hated rival Manchester United in the FA Cup. Arsenal could conceivably still win the Premier League—they’re seven points behind Manchester United with seven games to play—but given recent history, it’s hard to believe that they will.

If Kroenke has any chance of reversing this trend, he’ll first have to unravel a logic puzzle. All the flaws in Arsenal’s recent approach—overreliance on young players, rigid insistence on a single tactical system, a lack of ambition in the transfer market, a failure to replace stars like Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira—can be laid at the feet of Arsene Wenger. And yet Wenger is a soccer genius, an indisputably great coach who’s led the club to some of its finest moments, including three Premier League titles and, in 2003-04, the first undefeated season by any team in top-flight English soccer since 1889. He’s still beloved by most fans, who’ve made “Arsene Knows” into a sort of soccer koan. At the general shareholders’ meeting in 2007, the club unveiled a bronze bust of him. He can’t be fired, and he insists he has a plan, but on the touchline he increasingly looks like a man embittered by the world’s failure to live up to his standards. Give him free rein, and his young charges Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie, and Walcott could catalyze into a force capable of winning titles for years to come. But the timeline for that development, as understandably frustrated fans point out, always seems to begin “next season.” As things stand, it would be insane for Kroenke to interfere, and equally insane for Kroenke to let things slide.

It’s worth noting that for all its beauty on the pitch, Arsenal’s style isn’t really a romantic phenomenon. The club’s aura is one of smart, highbrow competence, somewhere on the border of distingué and hipsterish. (If Arsenal were American, it would appeal both to David Brooks and to people who hate David Brooks.) In other words, its glamour is essentially commercial; Arsenal, which redesigned its crest in 2002 in order to sell more shirts, is pure at heart in the same way as an indie band whose songs sound great in Mercedes advertisements. Even Wenger is sometimes most comfortable casting his ideals as pure show business. “When somebody buys a ticket and spends £50, £60, or £70, it is not because he wants to be bored,” he said in 2005. “The target for every manager … is to try to entertain people.”

It’s possible that this is precisely what drew Kroenke to the club in the first place: Arsenal, like Apple computers or Prada, can be subjected to endless commercial exploitation without losing the prestige that makes it unique. If that’s the case, then expect Kroenke to tinker very little with the formula established by the gang of aristocrats that preceded him. He’ll monitor shirt sales and sponsorships, make occasional appearances at the Emirates and smile vaguely in the stands. In the meantime, the ambiguities of Arsenal’s identity—the triumphant style and the shattering losses, the brilliance and the frustration—will cascade without ever resolving, like some beautiful attacking move that never quite reaches the goal.