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NEVER more have I wanted Arsenal to beat a team for off-the-field reasons than on Thursday evening.
How they delivered. It was joyous to watch Mikel Arteta’s rampant Gunners side humiliate the racists of Ondrej Kudela’s Slavia Prague 4-0 on the night, to move into the last four of the Europa League, 5-1 on aggregate.
How unexpectedly enjoyable was it to see Arteta’s team play with power, pace, verve and flair in what was their best performance of the season by far.
The ruthless rout sees the Gunners only three wins away from a long-awaited return to the Champions League. If they do go on and lift the Europa League it will be an incredible feat, made all the more noteworthy by their utterly indifferent form in the Premier League.
Unai Emery’s Villarreal await in what will be a gripping tie full of irony, nuance and texture. Judging by their lively quarter-final performances over two legs against Tottenham’s conquerors Dynamo Zagreb, the clash will be one to savour — for footballing reasons as well as Emery’s narrative. But they are stories for another day.
For Thursday night provided a moment that will live long in the memory for other reasons, not just for the football.
What was most impressive about the strength Arsenal showed in dispatching Prague occurred shortly before kick-off.
In a poignant photograph that has already become an iconic image in the north Londoners’ proud and illustrious history, a kneeling Alex Lacazette stared down the entire Slavia side.
As he took the knee, Lacazette’s quiet dignity, allied with righteous anger at the brazen racism shown by Kudela — and the lack of an apology and remorse from the player, the club and his teammates — meant his stare had a primeval power that was channelled from the ages.
Lacazette’s remorseless look was a conduit for the unfairness, the meanness, the pain, the embarrassment, the shock, the fear, the shame, the disgust, the anger — as well as the strength, the grit, the determination and the unbowed pride and dignity of anyone who has suffered racism. And my word, he let them see it in those blazing, unblinking eyes.
It was a stunning moment that will be referenced by future generations in the ongoing struggle against racism. Already, his simple act has already reverberated around the globe.
His gaze unnerved his opponents because it showed that an intelligent, strong, proud and successful black man was not going to let the racists win. Not in sport. Not in life. Lacazette’s blazing eyes will live long in the memory for everyone, not least Slavia Prague.
It was as beautiful as it was important, and as brave as it was satisfying. I wonder how the unspeakable Kudela felt when he saw it? Or, as the goals went in, did he note all four were scored by black men?
No wonder Thursday was a wonderful night in the fight against racism.
However, no-one can rest on their laurels. There is so much more to do. Uefa’s 10-match ban was lenient. Yes, it was marginally better than the provisional one-match ban initially handed out to Kudela.
But with Glen Kamara and his Rangers colleague Kemar Roofe suspended for three and four matches for their reaction to being racially abused, Uefa’s Kudela decision is still short of where many believe the sanctions should go — with plenty believing a year’s ban should have been the bare minimum, while others called for a lifetime ban.
Uefa should have also considered an educational element to Kudela’s punishment. Meeting victims of racism, hearing their stories and learning why what he did was so abhorrently wrong.
Until that happens, ignorant and dangerous people like Kudela will still think they can get away with such behaviour.
Kudela’s case should be the start, not the end of this process. Events in Minnesota this week underline that.
Thanks to French journalist and broadcaster Johan Honnet from RMC Sport who interviewed me for a pre-match segment on Arsenal vs Slavia Prague. RMC have the French broadcasting rights for the Europa League (and the Champions League) this season.
We met the day after I was at Bramall Lane to cover Arsenal’s 3-0 win against Sheffield United. It was the same day lockdown eased further and he filmed me talking all things Arsenal in vibrant Finsbury Park.
North London was buzzing with excitement and activity at restrictions being eased and it was great to be out and about in my old stamping ground.
What did I say to him and the camera on Monday? I told him Arteta needed time. And that he deserved time in his massive job of rebuilding the team.
Thankfully Thursday night further proved that the club are on the right track. I’m looking forward to reporting from the Emirates on Sunday, when Arsenal host Fulham for this newspaper, to chart further progress.
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