Disclaimer – The veracity of this story is heavily debated upon to this day. While a lot of experts, including Adam Robinson, the author of the Bin Laden biography, “Behind the mask of terror” and the prominent Arsenal fan website “ArseWeb” confirm to this story, a few sources, including Guardian, refute it. The club themselves remain non-committal to this day, thus leaving nothing more than a hazy trail to follow. Hence the phrase “is said to have” in the title.
March 15, 1994. It was the second leg of the European Cup Winners’ Cup and Highbury was the venue. The red half of North London witnessed scenes of intense tension, highly palpable yet riveting. George Graham’s Arsenal had after all drawn a stalemate against the so called “lesser” Turin club in the first leg at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Ian Wright and co couldn’t break the deadlock at Fiat-city, in a typically resolute display of defending by the Italian side. It was going to be one hell of a second leg.
34,678. These are almost laughable numbers today as far as Arsenal’s home attendance is concerned. But this was 21 years ago, long before those Kansas based architects drew the plans for the Emirates. This was the time when Gianluigi Lentini was the costliest player on earth for a then princely sum of £13 million. This was an entire generation ago. However, the numbers aren’t to be scoffed at. Among the 30,000-odd vociferous Gooners that day was a quiet man.
37 years old. He was a billionaire. A Saudi Arabian national. The son of a construction magnate who was close to the royal family. However, he wasn’t in good terms with any of them and was banished by his own country four years ago. The man had chosen a path that would later make him the world’s most wanted fugitive. Osama Bin Laden was at the Highbury.
No 9. Tall and gangly, the founder of the Al-Qaeda was supposedly a striker in his younger days. In fact, he was quite an enthusiast of the beautiful game, if his acquaintances are to be believed. "In summer, early in the morning, after mosque, we'd come together to play football. We would argue amongst ourselves – 'this was a foul, that was a goal'. He was the only one who wouldn't argue, wouldn't fight. He would play just for the pleasure, but he refused to get into any argument with any of us”, says Khaled Batarfi, his childhood friend.
6’3”. "He was so tall he didn't have to jump to smash the ball," says his old bodyguard, Nasser al-Bahri. And, as legend has it, Bin Laden’s obsession with strikers wasn’t just confined to leading the line as a kid. Said to be a huge fan of Ian Wright, he bought his son a replica shirt of the Woolwich native, whose son Shaun-Wright Phillips also played for a great London football club, Chelsea. However, all this was under the wraps until...
9/11. This sad day in the history of mankind changed everything. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, a bounty of $25 million was placed on Bin Laden. Journalists and authors clamoured to get even the smallest bite of information about You-Know-Who. And then, Adam Robinson opened the Pandora’s box. In a book of many a startling revelation, this was the only one that held any interest for the fans of the game. Apparently, Osama Bin Laden was an Arsenal fan.
Late 2001. As the news went viral, Arsenal was swift in its response – “We've seen the reports in the papers. Clearly he wouldn't be welcome at Highbury in the future.” Among the fans, the response was mixed – being embarrassed by a well-known celebrity (read Piers Morgan) was one thing; being terrified by the world’s most wanted man was something else.
However, the banter loving fans that they were, some of them quickly took to the militant possibly loving the same crest as they did. "Osama, woah-woah, Osama, woah-woah, he's hiding in Kabul, he loves the Ars-enal!”, they chanted with gusto.
66th minute. It was just past the hour mark at Highbury, when Tony Adams rose highest to a ball, like he always did. As the ball nestled into the back of the net and the crowd erupted, George Graham heaved a sigh of relief. Arsenal would go on to beat a David Ginola inspired Paris Saint-Germain in the semi-finals, before facing a resurgent Parma side in the final at Copenhagen.
They would go on to beat the Italian side in the showpiece match, courtesy an Alan Smith strike. Probably, Bin Laden would have also celebrated what was a sensational victory for the Gunners.
Zero Dark 30. During the wee hours of 2 May 2011, Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan by the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group. A few hours earlier, Arsenal had beaten their heated rivals Manchester United 1-0 at the Emirates Stadium. As Aaron Ramsey swung his right foot to see the ball nestle in the back of the net, the crowd erupted and Arsene Wenger heaved a sigh of relief.
Perhaps Bin Laden may have also celebrated what was a sensational victory for the Gunners before the Ramsey curse killed another well-known figure. Who knows.