In amongst the nuclear fallout of last week’s crucial Premier Leaguer clash between Arsenal and Manchester United, aside from the many significant repercussions – Man Utd climbing back into the title race, Arsenal finally missing a step, a game note really made for the neutrals, yet tense and thrilling all the same – somehow the issue that has inspired the most forceful keyboard offensives was United forward Robin Van Persie’s celebration following his winning first half goal. Wheeling away in jubilation, RVP let off a little steam in a rare showing of raw emotion. But no, we can’t have that. It’s ‘disrespectful’.
The problem is that he used, of course, to play for Arsenal, and there’s this antiquated custom of sportsmanship that says you shouldn’t celebrate against your old teams out of consideration for the fans whose hearts you’ve already broken. As far as I see it, Arsenal fans forewent any right to complain about this when they effectively disowned him after his transfer. He was booed whenever he touched the ball at The Emirates last season. Respect is a two-way street. Gotta give it to get it. Remember the ‘Robin Van Purse-Strings’ chants last year?
But then this week Arsene Wenger is talking about how he still considers RVP an Arsenal player, and how he’s struggled to adapt to seeing him in an opposition shirt. There’s a nostalgic element to all this, trying to salvage Van Persie’s (considerable) Arsenal legacy - a legacy that was only damaged by the handling of his transfer. RVP wanted to leave. He wanted a new challenge; he felt that Arsenal had gotten stagnant. He wanted to challenge for trophies (Arsenal hasn’t won any silverware for 8 years and counting). And he only had a year left on his contract, so all the bargaining chips were on his side of the table. Arsenal basically inferred that RVP was leaving for a bigger house and a new car or whatever. And they criticised his loyalty or lack thereof for not resigning with them. It’s all PR. This distracted fans from yet another example of Arsenal selling a great player before seeing the full results of their development by giving them a villain to direct their frustrations at (one who shares a name with Batman’s sidekick, funnily enough). Compare this to the Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale transfers. Both were handled as inevitable propositions of the modern game, and fans accepted this. Neither of them will ever be booed at their former home grounds (Case and point: Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford in the Champions League quarters last season).
I guess Arsenal were also holding on to a stale club rivalry, which has thankfully been revived this year. Arsenal vs Man Utd games used to give us so much in the good old days of Henry/Van Nistelrooy/Viera/Keane. Ironically for RVP, it’s Arsenal looking more like League champions at the moment, though when he left it was far from the case. In fact you could argue that it was his leaving that finally sparked the Gunners into action in the transfer market. If RVP were still there, I doubt the Ozil transfer would have happened.
Keep in mind Van Persie’s subdued celebration against Arsenal last year. The guy’s a pro and this is all business to him. But this last game was just too important. You can’t blame him for savouring a vital personal and team victory. And he didn’t rub his goal in fans faces. He didn’t antagonise opposition players. He celebrated jubilantly with his own teammates and fans - as he has every right to do.
So why does anyone adhere to this idealistic measure of sportsmanship? Out of genuine goodwill, I s’pose. For the memories of good times past. And, yes, out of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (Find out what it means to me…). It’s certainly not to appease rabid fans. Transfers in this day and age are a part of the landscape, just ask any fan of a lower league team about player loyalty. The relationship between players and fans is a selfish one: What’s in it for me, mate? It’s fickle and impermanent. RVP scored so many great goals for Arsenal. He owes them nothing. Just as he owes Manchester United nothing beyond his current contract.
You can’t stifle a player’s competitive spirit and you can’t deny a footballer the right to enjoy his job. We’d all trade places if we could. Instead of getting hung up in Rodney Dangerfield mode (Can’t get no respect. No respect I tell ya!), let’s just move on, shall we? It’s not complicated – fans’ll get back whatever respect they put in. Sport is one of the few remaining purveyors of unfiltered emotional realism. I say we keep it that way.