He was a funny looking lad. Not really of the kind with an obvious oddity in his face, like big ears or large nostrils (that would just make one look and giggle quietly). No, this boy had a vibrant air of intrigue and oscillating daftness about him. And it was a pity because he probably wasn't even 17 or 18 years old, and, failing serious facial reconstruction, faced the prospect of life filled with strange stares and muffled laughter.
Nevertheless, unfazed by the looks from the Sunday morning faithful he plodded his way to the bar and took a seat. The Arsenal kicked off against Man City nigh two minutes later, and I think for the most we forgot about him.
Indulge me for a minute while I introduce you to the regulars. There's Jack, who's been following the Gunners since '81. John, from Islington, who's held a season ticket every year before moving to New York. Jane and Sarah, who think Cesc is, um, Cescy. The lads from the supporters club. The lads from London. The lads from North Africa. The fat Frenchman who looks like an obese Robert Pires. Big Arsenal fans all. Here every game. We sing about Wenger, we sing about Tottenham. We only drink Guinness and talk about life in the New World.
So imagine our surprise when at halftime (following a hectic first period), when the funny-looking lad interrupted Jack. As he is wont to do at the break of every game, Jack generally goes over the team sheet and rates our lads.
"Denilson's been garbage," he was saying. "He isn't a real Brazilian."
And that did it. The funny-looking boy snapped. To that point, he had been minding his own business, keeping his head down.
But now he turned towards the lot of us with tigerish ferocity, spit flying out of the corners of his mouth, and I think we were all a bit surprised by what came out his mouth (were we expecting him to sound like Richard Simmons?): "I'm sorry, but why exactly is he garbage? He hasn't missed a single pass. He's made more interceptions than anyone on the pitch. He's moved twice as much as Nasri has."
Fair play, the lot of us thought. Bright kid. Jack was embarrassed, but there was no way we were going to let him weed out the lad for making a good point.
"Why not start Rosicky, though?" Jack postulated. "He's just so much better."
I don't know if it was just how he funny he looked or maybe the expression of disappointment on the boy's face that caused it, but for the first time in the company of the people I had spent two years with watching the Gunners, I felt removed. Almost as if I were a ghost of myself, I found myself in the third person. "Stupid thing to say," my ghost reasoned. "Why would anyone say that?"
There's no contesting that there a exists a hierarchy in every sport, or indeed in any aspect of life. Some players are more or less-skilled than other players. Player vary in their physical definitions, in their mental qualities like resiliency and determination, or in their ability to read a game and anticipate play.
Of course they do. Naturally.
But are the qualities that one can see—through balls, silky passing, dribbling, flicks, slides and shots or even the basic body language and expressions under stress, etc.—really the most appropriate tools to compare two players?
"It's a problem," the funny-looking lad was saying to me after the game, "Gaming culture is changing the way fans think about the game."
I unhooked my gaze from his face; I couldn't put my finger on what was so odd about it.
"You play a game for a few days. Somewhere out there's a game designer who's probably never kicked a ball in his life. He's decided, perhaps based on Rosicky's form in the select few appearances he's made for Arsenal, that he's an 82. Can you believe it?! An 82! A number! That's fifteen years of training, practice, logic stresses, mental games, strategy, experience, technique and lifestuffed into one, whole number—82."
I held my breath. He was onto something.
"I'm not suggesting that Rosicky is better or worse than what they make him out to be," he went on, "its just that he's not a number. No one is. He's more than a sum of attributes appropriating his crossing or passing ability. He's a human being affected by a million things on and off the field."
Not for the first time today the boy had my complete attention. I dared to speak: "So what you're saying is that, Denilson, who's possibly or probably assigned a lower number, can't actually be worse than Rosicky because they can't be compared by just what can be seen?"
He nodded. "He's different. A different player, a different position. A different person."
I was getting the hang of this, I thought, as I cracked open my smile.
To be continued.