One Day in Zagreb

I'm really excited today. You want to know why? Well, today is my last day off from a joyously long summer and I can't wait to get going with work tomorrow.... Yeah, no one is buying that. Want to know the real reason I'm buzzing? It's the Champions League draw!

As a teacher, I'm in a career where I get about 13 weeks of holiday a year, which is a very nice position to be in. However, I must say my motivation is waning and even that as a perk is doing little to make me feel satisfied with my profession. Perhaps it will pass, perhaps it won't. Today very much feels like it won't. This might be natural after five weeks off, but this year feels different. Nevertheless, last year I didn't have the prospect of the Champions League to maintain my sanity. 

Teaching is stressful; it's full on and rarely gives you a minute to focus fully on the things that you actually enjoy. What do I enjoy? Well, the fact that anyone reading this has visited a website called The Boys in Red and White can probably guess that it's Arsenal Football Club. Arsenal has often been the thing that has kept me focused; knowing that I have a game or two across the week to look forward to really helps me to put one foot in front of the other. As a match-going supporter, this is something that is magnified tenfold.

Tonight's draw is playing on my mind in both a positive and negative way. Positive in the sense that there are six matchdays to look forward to; the potential to see three of Europe's elite visit the home of football; and even the possibility of exciting away trips across the continent. Possibilities prior to a draw seem endless. 

Then I am hit with the stark reality of my career. Firstly, that I have to go back to it tomorrow. Secondly, that the flexibility of holiday time doesn't exist within my profession and there is every possibility that I'll miss out on an opportunity to visit somewhere like the Bernabeu or the San Siro. A massive fear of missing out lives constantly in the deep recesses of my brain. In order for one of these incredible trips to come to fruition, I am relying on Arsenal drawing someone away during matchday three, or as we teachers call it, October half term. 

When writing this, we are about two hours away from finding out whether luck is on my side. That's why when it comes to selecting dream opponents, I'm really not bothered. I'll happily travel to the far reaches of Europe for a game and sample the culture of wherever it may be. 

The last time I had more flexibility within a career was in 2015, when myself and my best friend, Andrei, waited patiently to discover our opponents in the group stage. Out came Bayern Munich (predictably and almost certainly will come out again in 2023!), Olympiacos and to us, most excitingly, Dinamo Zagreb. Up stepped the dream team of planning!

We quickly logged onto a Zoom call and discussed flight options before landing on the perfect journey. Fast forward a few weeks and we're at Heathrow, waiting for our flight to depart with a customary 7am alcoholic beverage, and set for a trip that promised so much. We boarded and everything appeared to be going well. As we approach Croatia, we start to descend to our planned stop enroute to Zagreb in Split. We touchdown and are advised to wait on the plane with our fellow Arsenal supporters and so we wait patiently. Minutes pass. An hour drifts away. Still no movement. A Croatian passenger then addresses us: "This happens all the time. We won't be continuing to Zagreb. It will get cancelled and they'll put on coaches." Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. 

At this point our thought is singular and collective; we're going to miss the game. No time to waste, we go and ask about this replacement coach. No one knows a thing. It could come, it could not. Utter chaos and no clarity in place. We can't take this chance. Then there's a rush. All Arsenal fans congregate together to discuss options, of which there are two; wait for the the official transport to get us there, or jump in cabs to travel the remaining 400km distance. The latter seems the sensible choice. So in jump five of us into a people carrier, including our soon to become acquaintance, Roger, and strap in for the race against time. Any hiccups and we're screwed. 

Pre-match drinks in the square are no longer an option. Sight-seeing is out of the question. We'll take just getting to the game at this stage! After an anxious journey, we are dropped at our hotel and in enough time to go and get something to eat. We laugh and joke about the situation and then make our way to the game. Arsenal then proceed to capitulate, a performance so abject that it's in keeping with the failures of our transport. 2-1 to Dinamo. A real 'I was there' moment. 

The story does have a positive though. Not only did we get this tale out of it, but we also met some lovely locals the following day who kindly gave us a lift to the airport for our return flight, alongside a bag of Croatian candy as a memento. They were equally sympathetic to our experience as they were shocked and miffed at our dedication to our club. A happy ending to a stressful trip.

But this is what it is all about. It's about going to the football, of course, but it's more about the people you go with, those you meet and the places you see. Non-football people will always struggle to understand the attraction of sitting on various means of transport for hours just to see a football game, but for people like Andrei and myself, it's what makes us tick. 

So for anyone wondering why I'm so stressed about a seemingly arbitrary draw, that's why. I want to experience utter chaos with my friends in a foreign land, but this time, with an Arsenal win attached to the end. Fingers crossed I get my wish.