When we see Christian Pulisic score a stoppage time goal for Borussia Dortmund, we have a general sense of how special he is and how hard he has to work to reach this level. Academically, we know he didn’t walk off the street and start for a major Bundesliga club. But we really don’t have a sense of the long hours and small breaks he had to achieve this level. The Arsenal Yankee, a book by former Arsenal player and current scout Danny Karbassiyoon, lays out this narrow path in vivid and engaging detail.
Karbassiyoon, the pride of Roanoke, catapulted through the youth of U.S. soccer before being noticed by an Arsenal scout as a high schooler. Choosing a possible professional career over a safer college scholarship, Danny flew to London as a trialist for one of the world’s largest clubs and eventually signed a contract with Arsenal. His brief career with the Gunners featured a game-winning League Cup goal against Manchester City and playing against some of the biggest names in the world. Even a brief loan spell to Ipswich Town was a notable experience that showed him the passion of a club fighting for promotion into the Premier League.
However, reoccurring knee injuries derailed his Arsenal dream and, after the team released him in 2005, he signed with Burnley. Another major knee injury and trouble with the club’s management led to Karbassiyoon making the tough decision to retire from playing professional soccer at age 22. It was then he reconnected with Arsenal and ended up continuing with the club as a scout, where he is credited with discovering and signing Joel Campbell and Gedion Zelalem.
What makes this autobiography different than many other former footballer autobiographies is Karbassiyoon’s ability to capture the sheer wonder at his journey. When we spend enough time in our careers we tend to forget how amazing some aspects of it are to outsiders. For example, I’ve spent years working in DC and I am often unimpressed by walking into some places and buildings that should always awe me; I’ve been to them enough times that the luster has worn off. The author seems to suffer no similar fault. When he writes about his Arsenal career, the sense of respect and wonder for the people and places he sees comes through clearly on the page. The reader feels this same sense of amazement at the Arsenal training ground and the sheer unlikeliness of playing Everton in a cup match. It is not so much humility as it is thankfulness, a recognition that as a soccer player from small Roanoke, Virginia, the ability to put on an Arsenal shirt and train with Thierry Henry is in many ways miraculous.
As a parent, I had another perspective on this story, and it is the one referenced in the beginning. The author spares no details on his rise through the ranks of U.S. youth soccer to even be seen by an English scout. He tells of his relentless work ethic, the disappointment of not making certain squads or achieving different markers to a professional career, and how he adjusted his training to achieve goals like making regional select squads. One part of his journey was the ability to spend a few months with a host family in Germany, and briefly learn the game in their youth system. This is a rare opportunity not afforded to every soccer player. In addition, the Arsenal dream could have been ended before it began, as Karbassiyoon was initially wait listed for the select Adidas Elite Soccer Program. He barely made the program right before it began and it was there that Arsenal scouted him for the first time.
Great soccer players don’t just happen; they don’t position themselves in front of scouts and get signed based on what decisions they make. It’s more complicated than that, and that is the greatest value of this book, even more so than the details of training with the Invincibles. For parents like me or even just fans of youth soccer development, this book spells out in stark terms how narrow the line of luck can be between utter success and failing to reach the highest possible goal. That’s a scary thought, but again the author’s respectful description of where his career took him also shows the importance of maintaining the right perspective on a career.
All of this does not mean this is a perfect book. Undoubtedly some of the accounts are whitewashed, and the book severely lacks in information about his post-playing career as a scout. I think a book about 50 pages longer with some information of life as a scout for Arsenal would have made a fuller, more rounded autobiography of an Arsenal Yankee. Despite these critiques, this was one of the best soccer books I have read in a while, and certainly one of the best autobiographies, and should be added to any soccer fans’ reading list.
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