The Island of Arsenal
Will an American billionaire change the culture of England's most glamorous soccer club?
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.