It took exactly a month for Granit Xhaka to go from being named Arsenal captain to being booed off the field. As a player, it’s hard to see what the abuse was supposed to achieve, but destroying the confidence of one of the team’s key players – whether the fans like it or not – seems to have been the effect. One of his best friends, having talked to him, described him as distraught, and with Arsenal playing at the Emirates Stadium again on Saturday, Xhaka must be asking himself what more he can do. And whether there is any way back.
The 27-year-old has attempted nearly 500 more passes this season than any other Arsenal player, ranks third for tackles and interceptions, and was given the captaincy after winning a vote among the first-team squad. I have seen him score absolute worldies, so he has that kind of ability. Though he has technical limitations, he is clearly a player who cares, who tries and who has a strong character and the respect of his peers. In the recent past Arsenal have lacked strong characters, and in Xhaka they have a leader. He may not be the player the fans desire, but he is the kind of person the club needs. And still, the fans condemn him.
Xhaka has been criticised before, and sometimes if fans get a bee in their bonnet there’s nothing a player can do to change their minds. Arsenal’s fans have clearly decided he is not good enough; what can he do now to convince them otherwise, and how exactly could shattering his confidence help him to do that? He now takes the field knowing that 50,000 people just don’t like him. No matter how much character you have, that is a very difficult pill to swallow.
He might not have played well against Crystal Palace, but I can guarantee that he will already have known it before the first fan raised their voice. When he saw his number on the fourth official’s board, particularly as captain, he will have been extremely disappointed, more than anything in himself. At that moment, when he will already have been fragile, the very people who are supposed to support him instead showered him in boos. Then, most bizarrely of all, when he got upset they said he should apologise.
What do fans expect him to do, in that moment? He’s coming off the pitch, he wants to stay on the pitch, and he hears boos from his own fans. He is entitled as a human being to be absolutely devastated, but somehow the fans want him to clap and smile and say thank you. Footballers are humans before they are players. They work hard on controlling their emotions, but still they exist and sometimes, like all of us, they come out. Having watched that moment on television I think there are plenty of people who should be feeling remorse and issuing apologies – but Xhaka is not one of them.
I remember the 2010 World Cup, when after a draw against Algeria the England fans booed the team and Wayne Rooney criticised them on television. It was a terrible performance, and the players knew it, but the abuse achieved nothing. A few months later, and with the relationship between the team and the fans still poor, Fabio Capello, the England manager, said the team were “playing with fear inside, fear of playing at Wembley”. That is the atmosphere that Arsenal fans are creating for Xhaka, an atmosphere in which instead of instilling extra confidence the prospect of playing at home will create fear and tension. That, in turn, will lead to poor performances, which will create a worse atmosphere, which will create more fear and tension. It is a vicious circle which will only lead to disappointment.
The message Héctor Bellerín, who captained Arsenal at Liverpool on Wednesday, posted on Twitter was perfect. “We are all humans, we all have emotions, and sometimes it’s not easy dealing with them,” he wrote. “It’s time to lift each other up, not to push each other away.” My concern is that some Arsenal supporters have become famous for their negativity about their team and may not take that message on.
Over the past few years Wenger, Mesut Özil and now Xhaka have endured extended periods when Arsenal’s fans have turned against them. These are not minor characters at the club – it’s a great manager, a big signing, a club captain. All have certainly fallen below expected standards, and the fans have a right to express disappointment, but it has created the impression of a group of supporters who can be fickle. That isn’t helped by Arsenal Fan TV, the popularity of which is based on raw and direct views about the team that are most interesting when negative.
My opinion is that fans should not be booing their captain. Not under any circumstances. It’s that simple. Fans will have their opinions, but there are right and wrong ways to express them and they should learn from this. Nobody will ever do their job better while thousands of people are telling them they’re useless at it. Last Sunday his teammate Lucas Torreira was moved to tears; Xhaka has been offered counselling by the club. These are real people, and what the fans say and do has an impact on them.
In women’s football obviously there are fewer fans, and often players will have conversations with them after the game. I’ve always found that the women have a more personal relationship with their team’s fans, and that’s something that could come into the men’s game. There is so much media attention, so many TV shows that involve fans talking to journalists, or journalists talking to other journalists. When we hear from current managers and players it is usually in formal situations – press conferences or set-piece interviews. There’s a gap in men’s football that needs to be filled. Players could go on these fans’ shows, and just talk. If supporters have a perception of Xhaka that’s different from the reality their teammates see and know, there should be an opportunity for the likes of Bellerín to change it by explaining, in an unforced setting, why he has so much respect in the dressing room. Fifty thousand people booing, provoking someone else to swear and take off their shirt, is not exactly a grown-up conversation. Fans can do better.