By Paul Gardner
LONDON --Ivan Gazidis stands on the wide terrace outside his Arsenal office and points vaguely to the northeast -- "I used to live just over there."
That was back in the late 1980s, when Gazidis was just down from Oxford University with a law degree. But in 1992 he departed for the USA, leaving his regular visits to Arsenal games behind. Forever, probably.
Not quite. Involvement in the birth of MLS took him to the Deputy Commissionership of the league, a job that lasted 14 years until, quite suddenly -- and to me, almost shockingly -- Arsenal swooped and recruited him to be their CEO.
That seemed decidedly odd to me -- Gazidis with no experience of life at a soccer club, no background in European soccer -- how could that work?
So far, it seems, quite well. I meet him at the elevator in this swank new building that adjoins the spiffy new Emirates stadium, and here is a man who looks totally at home and at ease, who talks fluently and enthusiastically about Arsenal, its past, its present and its future.
The past is there, inescapably, in Gazidis's office, in the form of solid, rich, wood paneling on all the walls -- paneling that came from the old offices in the old stadium at Highbury. You can see what's left of that from the balcony, too -- it's now been developed into apartment blocks.
So, Mr. Gazidis, was it a no-brainer to accept the Arsenal offer? Not quite, it seems. "I still feel very connected to the mission of growing the game in the U.S. -- that will be a part of my life until I die.
"I wasn't looking to get out of MLS, I loved what I was doing there. I hope I haven't just walked away from it -- the growth of the sport in the USA is one of the greatest things you could be involved with in the world of football.
"MLS gave me the opportunity to influence the development of the sport in the USA. I never viewed MLS as second rate. I think England has a lot to learn from the rest of the world, including the United States.
"So it was not a no-brainer, but I knew it felt right."
Gazidis stresses that a crucial factor in his decision was the Arsenal name and its traditions: "I'd had other offers from England, but had turned them down. But Arsenal means more. I won't say I'm an Arsenal fan, but for some time -- at least a decade now -- there are two clubs whose playing style I have admired. Barcelona and Arsenal.
"I am now at an established, well-run club, in an environment where I feel comfortable."
But the struggle for the ownership of the club, between the American Stan Kroenke and the Uzbekistani Alisher Usmanov -- surely that must cause some unease? "No, not at all," is Gazidis' reply, "Continuity is a tradition here -- the number of people you meet who've been here for 20 or even 30 years is astonishing. Things are much more stable than you might believe."
There is, too, a great attraction for Gazidis in working with Arsene Wenger. "I've admired him for some time for the styleof his teams. Now, it's a privilege to get behind the curtain, to watch him at work. He spends so much time with the players -- he is on the training field every single day. He is really inspirational, a coach -- or a manager, in English terms -- with the courage of his convictions. He believes that a style that is technical can also be successful. When Wenger is asked 'Why can't you be more pragmatic?' -- he replies that 'A good pass ispragmatic."
Gazidis's devotion to Arsenal -- or at least to the soccer philosophy of Wenger, seems already total. I am complaining about a news item announcing that "Arsenal are in pole position to sign American wonder kid Luis Gil." I ask Gazidis: How does that help American soccer or MLS? The answer from Gazidis is logical -- indeed, it is one I regularly use myself. How do you stop a talented kid from moving? Must he be confined to his own country -- however inferior the opportunities may be there -- until he is 18? Anyway, adds Gazidis, "For a talented young American player, it's a good option to come to Arsenal. If it were my child, if he had prodigious talent, I'd pick Arsenal."
Before leaving Gazidis's heavily paneled office, I go back to the terrace and look out towards where the old Highbury stadium used to be. The sight stirs some of my most cherished memories. For this was where I used to go to Arsenal games in the mid-1950s -- just up there, at the top of Avenell Road, was where I used to park my motorcycle, every other Saturday. I'm remembering the thrill that the charged atmosphere of those long ago afternoons used to give me. It's all different now, of course ... nothing remains, just apartment blocks and neat, quiet little streets.
But Gazidis suddenly dispels my mood of resentful nostalgia with a reminder that while the surroundings may have changed, the emotions haven't. He's contemplating what he finds the "best part" of his new job: "I think it's the sense of excitement on match day. I love the rhythm of going from game to game. Now, I'm living every pass, every bounce of the ball ... it's very compulsive."
That compulsion, so intimately linked to the game on the field, seems to me to be a pretty admirable one for a top soccer executive to treasure.