After scrapping with their fingernails through an unbearable injury crisis in the spring to grab the last Champions League qualifying spot on goal difference, Arsenal Women won’t play Champions League football this season after all. After all the progress in Europe last season, the 5-1 thumping of Lyon, the win from behind against Bayern Munich, fighting toe to toe with Wolfsburg with the squad down to the bare bones, some of last season’s most memorable nights won’t be repeated in 2023-24.
There is no hiding or concealing what a monumental disappointment that is for fans and players alike. Yesterday, I sat behind Arsenal’s press officer for the penalty shootout and alongside Arsenal.com’s staff. People who are invested in the players as much as the badge, people who had the additional emotional tie of watching colleagues and friends have their dreams cruelly taken away.
After disappointing defeats, I never ask to speak to any players, just the coach. The players don’t want to talk and, frankly, we don’t really have the demand for the extra content anyway. As an introvert I understand intrinsically that, for almost everyone, processing disappointment is a largely solitary process. As the fallout of the penalty shootout defeat began to percolate I leant over to Dan, the press officer. ‘No players, just Jonas will be fine.’
The way UEFA games are structured there is a very defined mixed zone between the dressing room and the team bus. It brings you face to face with the players, on nights like Lyon away last October, it’s glorious. Everyone is happy to stop, even those that don’t shoot a smile or a clenched fist as they pass.
Obviously I have to be professional and neutral in these environs but I am sure my face tells the story too just as it does for the players. On this occasion, it felt awkward and grating, like intruding on a private grief. You also want to take care that your expression doesn’t give away your own hurt. Just because I try it doesn’t mean I succeed, however.
Katie McCabe passes and we exchange a raise of eyebrows, Jen Beattie, who really should have been the heroine of this game, raises her eyes and puffs out her cheeks. Kim Little passes with a rueful smile. Lina Hurtig, Frida Maanum and Stina Blackstenius are stopped by the Swedish press. I have no idea what any of them say except to observe that the answers are short and pushed out among a sea of sighs.
Arsenal will now play in the Conti Cup group stage which feels, with all due respect to the competition the Gunners won last season, like an extra gut punch. A reminder of the gravity of this defeat. That reminder will be served regularly during the autumn and winter months. Trading in trips to the likes of Lyon, Turin and Munich for Crystal Palace or Lewes just isn’t the same.
Arsenal sold out their last Champions League game at Emirates Stadium but won’t have the opportunity to match that feat for their next European match for at least 12 months. There has been and will be a time to discuss whether this Champions League format is the best one, there are certainly questions that need to be asked of UEFA and FIFA as Alessia Russo, 17 days after starting a World Cup Final in Sydney, was starting a Champions League qualifier on a plastic pitch in Sweden. It is utterly lamentable that FIFA and UEFA combine to disregard player health so flagrantly.
At the moment, such conversations feel futile as Jonas Eidevall and his team are left to pick over the bones of this disappointment. ‘We are neither better nor worse as a team than we were yesterday,’ Eidevall told the small gaggle of journalists post-match. The squad travels to Germany until Thursday to lick their wounds and prepare for the WSL season opener on 1 October.
As another reminder of the lunacy of the women’s football calendar, most of the players will be away with their countries in the days leading up to the curtain raiser against Liverpool at the Emirates. But Arsenal have to make the best of this situation and this is where coaches and athletes and supporters are often at cross purposes.
Athletes cannot afford to dwell too much or indulge the urge for self pity or frustration and anger. They have to quickly adapt to the situation and make the best of it. They also have to find a way to use the disappointment as rocket fuel. The Conti Cup group stages give Arsenal, at least, the opportunity to better integrate younger squad players in need of minutes. Now it ought to be easier to give needed rest to players who went into the final stages of the World Cup and were robbed of a break by women’s football’s allergy to sane scheduling.
Free of European football last season, Manchester United were able to form a proper challenge for the league title and the FA Cup and the challenge is there for Arsenal to use their European disappointment to fuel a bountiful domestic season. That will certainly be an expectation among supporters and rightly so.
Even if Arsenal retain the Conti Cup this season, that competition ends in early March. The calendar for the crucial final weeks of the campaign are going to be clearer this year come what may. Clearly, all of this talk still feels a little sour, a little hollow in the wake of this disappointment.
There is a scene in the movie Fight Club, where Ed Norton’s character is having his hand burned with lye and vinegar by his alter ego Tyler Durden. As Norton flails and begs for the agony to stop, Durden urges him ‘don’t shut this out, stay with the pain.’ That is what today feels like. Sometimes you need to stay with the pain to properly process it, because that is the best way to let it go.