A Scotsman once said that football was not a matter of life and death, it was much more important than that. For business, it is now a vehicle for reaching a global audience.
Emirates’ decision to invest £100 million ($180 million) in Arsenal Football Club is surprising only for its scale. It is the largest sponsorship deal in British sports history and involves naming the club’s new ground Emirates Stadium for 15 years until 2021.
The deal is a coup for the airline. The present Arsenal team, undefeated in the English Premiership for more than a year, are champions. It has been in the top flight of English football since 1919. And its appeal is enhanced by intellectual French manager Arsene Wenger and a gifted, multi-racial team.
The deal will ensure that the millions of times a year Arsenal is mentioned in conversation, in print and on television and radio, Emirates will regularly get a passing mention. At no more than £10 million a year, this looks cheap, particularly if the club goes on to win the European Champions League.
I write these kind words despite the fact that I am a lifelong follower of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal’s North London rival since an act of skullduggery in the dark days following the end of the First World War. In 1913/14, the last season before the conflict led to the suspension of professional football, poorly-supported Arsenal, then based close to the Woolwich munitions factory, was floundering in the middle of the second division. Artful Spurs, London’s best club, had uncharacteristically finished bottom of the first.
It had been decided that division one in the 1919/20 season, the first since the end of the war, should be expanded by two to 22 teams. Following previous practice, no relegation was anticipated. Inexplicably, the Football League voted to elevate undeserving Arsenal to the first division and then, breaking every rule, wrongly consigned the Spurs to the second. Arsenal has never since been relegated.
Arsenal subsequently persuaded Islington council to approve the construction of a stadium in the heart of leafy Highbury. This led to the demolition of hundreds of homes and brought to those that remained the blight every other Saturday of massive crowds, heaps of rubbish, obscene chanting and occasional riots. The club even convinced London Transport to change the name of the nearest underground station from Gillespie Road to Arsenal. Since it is due to move half a mile to the new ground, this will soon be as inaccurate as it is ugly.
Arsenal dominated English soccer in the 1930s and has been regularly successful ever since. Critics sometimes claimed that the team snatched victory in time added on for injuries they had inflicted on more skillful opponents exhausted by 90 minutes of physical torment. Wenger’s arrival and the coming of stylish football to Highbury, therefore, was welcomed by every football fan.
Most people born in Islington cannot afford to live there and many residents have no interest in Arsenal. That explains the heavy vote for a hard-left party that stood in recent local elections on a platform including opposition to the demolition of a municipal garbage dump so that the new Arsenal ground could be built.
The sponsorship deal offers the club the chance to complete the cultural revolution begun by Wenger. So let us salute the team that should from now on be known as Emirates Football Club. And may Holloway Road station, the nearest tube stop to the new ground, be similarly renamed in celebration.
In these circumstances, old allegiances can break down. But dreamers dream. Am I the only football fan that hopes the moneymen of Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways will make the pilgrimage two further stops along the Victoria Line to Tottenham? A warm welcome will be found there and many good uses made of an amount – that does not need