By Alexandra Zazzera, writing from Brussels. (Photo: Ryu Voelkel)
Alexandra or “Ally" makes her debut for the AFR Team fervently supporting her Arsenal on one of the grandest nights since the opening of the Emirates. Arsenal and Barcelona both play beautiful football, but can you support both teams tonight? That is the question. The answer is no.
When the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League commenced in Nyon, everyone was well aware of the ties that could be produced. As the teams got paired up and the possibility became more and more likely, it happened; Arsenal against Barcelona. Wenger against Guardiola. This was destiny, it was inevitable. The two most flowing and skilful of sides in the world at the moment, pitted in a battle which will most likely produce the favourite to go on and win the entire competition. This is the stand out tie in the draw, and one which is as heavily anticipated as any final could ever be.
It is for that reason that it is maddening to hear some people announce proudly that they believe they will remain entirely neutral throughout the match. To remain neutral, while a match of this quality between two teams so intertwined off the pitch is going on, seems like madness. Look back to 2006, to the final of this very competition between these two sides. There had been a lot of hype surrounding that game and also a lot of tension. Thierry Henry was suspected of wanting to leave North London for the warmth of Catalonia, Barcelona to be exact.
The match began on a sour note, when a rampant fan gallivanted onto the pitch and flung a Barcelona shirt with Henry’s name on at the star striker. The match itself was a game full of incident and fantastic football, yet there was a feeling of injustice lingering, Lehmann’s rash dash out of the box might well have been the reason Arsenal were defeated that night, and it was this game that sprang to mind last year when once again, these teams were thrown together.
Last year’s tie was disastrous to the Arsenal morale, with the depleted team bereft of their captain being completely outclassed by none other than Lionel Messi. Yet it is this issue that has raged for a while, taking over much of last summer and a bit before. Cesc Fabregas, and his Catalonian roots. Many fans have been outraged by the actions of the Barcelona board, meaning a feeling of resentment is ever-present, and accusations being flung without cease. In this lies the main fact, one cannot love each of these teams to equal measure, it is simply impossible. While it follows that one may be enchanted by the similar type of play, the similar ethos and general way in which the clubs are taught to play, the high tension between the two sets of fans is still very much present.
While a neutral may proudly announce that their only motivation for watching this match may be to watch the best of matches, featuring the world’s best and most promising, it seems highly unlikely or possible not to favour one side. Not choosing is the easy way out, and seems most improbable, in actual fact belying a lack of true commitment to the teams themselves. Not choosing appears like the choice of someone who does not care enough or simply is not interested enough. It is not like having to choose between family members or make a life-changing decision, it is one that must be carefully thought through and calmly considered. To love two clubs to the same extent is highly difficult to envisage, and this has nothing to do with the fact that they play in different leagues or different countries. It is to do with the difficulties these clubs have encountered when coming into contact with each other. Arsenal fans and Barcelona fans will always disagree, and saying you care for both so much that you are unable to decide is nonsensical.
There can be no agreement between rivals, and if a neutral is simply hoping to avoid having to make an actual decision, the cowardly card can be well and truly held up and loudly announced. This is the one of the greatest ties of the Champions League, with two blisteringly beautiful teams, yet in some ways, this is war. There is nowhere to hide.