Interview: James Bird
Images: Flora Maclean
“Sit there”, Maria Petri tells me after walking us through her red-carpeted hallway to the kitchen/lounge area of her end-of-terrace house in North London.
To the left of the telly and above an electric fire are hundreds of pennants from across the world. Ajax. Bate Borisov. Hannover 96. Olympique Lyonnais. Atlético de Madrid. Red Bull Salzburg. Barcelona. Olympiacos. Braga. A patchwork collage of triangular memories. And when you point at one of them, like FFC Turbine Potsdam, Maria’s face pauses for a moment and then she tells you something fantastical about it, like Kelly Smith scored a hat-trick there, and then you point at another, like WFC Rossiyanka, a small team from Russia, and Maria’s face pauses for a moment and she starts to say how she’d never heard of them before she went and how she’s worried whether the team exists anymore.
Then she’s showing me a badge on her T-shirt that she bought from a lady in Birmingham a few years ago. It’s got all the WSL teams on it from back then, and she likes this especially because it’s from before N17 and Manchester United had teams in the top tier. Maria lives on her own, but then she looks up at me and says “I have two permanent tenants, you know”, and I turn around and there are life-size cutouts of Héctor Bellerín and Jeff Reine-Adélaïde next to the fridge. Then there’s a photo of her and Ray Parlour having a cup of tea in the garden on the shelf, and then I turn around and spot all the Arsenal women’s programmes stacked on the telly stand opposite. Then I do what she told me to do thirty seconds ago, and I sit there, on the sofa, next to the Arsenal Women’s Quadruple scarf.
Maria Petri’s Greek-Cypriot parents moved over to the UK in 1938. They’d got engaged, the two families started arguing, and they fled to stay together because they were in love. Maria was born a year later. She knew that she wanted to be a teacher as soon as she left school, and went to University in Chichester to do a degree in French and Spanish before moving back to Islington to teach. She can speak six languages, and her garden is full of bay trees, rosemary bushes, and a vine that she grows grapes on and uses to make jelly.
You’ve probably seen, or if you go to the games, heard Maria before. She’s four foot eleven and shrinking, she reckons, but her presence fills and outgrows any room, garden, or stadium she's in. Maria has been obsessed with Arsenal since hearing the name on the radio as a 12-year-old girl while scrubbing the floor above the restaurant her family ran. Her parents didn’t want her to go and watch games, telling her that football wasn’t for little Greek girls, and it wasn’t until she went to see a game away at Portsmouth as a student that Maria got to see them live. Since the late 60s, Maria has hardly missed a game. Men’s. Women’s. U23s. The Emirates. Boreham Wood. Bate Borisov.
I spent two and a half hours with Maria, during which time she quoted Shakespeare about the temperature of the wind, railed against the unhinged abuse Alex Scott got for her accent on the television, and pointed at a black and white signed photo of Freddie Ljungberg and described him as all sexy. She’s the most effervescent football fan I’ve ever met.
With Arsenal Women playing in the North London derby as part of Women’s Football Weekend, against the team whose actual name she can’t let fall out of her mouth, this is A Day in the Life of Maria Petri…
My morning before a game is just nothing, I suppose. I get up, have my little breakfast of toast, tea, and cereal, and get myself dressed. I put on the same thing really, so something red, this necklace I’m wearing today, plus some blingier bling than this. I’ll have the radio on as soon as I’m up. talkSPORT at first, and as soon as midday comes along, it’ll be BBC Radio 5 live for the build-up on 5 Live Sport. Then I make sure I’ve got everything that I need, including my film and camera. It’s just a simple camera, but I’ve made it mine and used the same one at all the games I go to throughout the years. When they tried to not let me take the cameras in, I’d just hide behind people, come in with it, and then take the shots!
I used to travel anywhere that I wanted by public transport. Here, in Europe, even when we went to China, buses, trains, taxis, planes—anything that could get me to the games. But because of Covid and my inability to walk far now, I’ll get a taxi. I have the same driver every time, he’s a Colchester supporter, so we’ll talk about football and his team, and my three teams—Arsenal Men’s, Arsenal Women’s, and Arsenal U23s.
If it’s an away game like this weekend, I’ll always phone ahead to see if there’s any easy access to the game because I’ll be using my two walking sticks. And I’ll always have food and a cup of tea. I absolutely love well-cooked bacon, so at Boreham Wood, I’ll say to them “Thick sliced white. Butter on. Fat off. Well-cooked.” And they’ll do that for me. Delicious. As soon as I get to the game, I see so many people that I’ve known from coming to so many games over the years, it feels like home.
I’m in love with the Arsenal. That's all I can say. Because I don't have a family of my own, not a nuclear family anyway, Arsenal are my family. You’ve heard the phrase those who can play, play, and those who don’t, teach. Or something like that. It’s the same with me. I couldn’t play, so I became the best fan. I'm just so embroiled in Arsenal. They’re such lovely people, and the staff as well are absolutely beautiful, they're so nice to me. I think if I'm happy and they look happy because I'm happy, then everybody's happy. The love for them just got hold of me and won't let me go. And I keep saying to people, "I shall be oh so upset when I die." And they say, "why Maria?" "Well, I won't be able to watch Arsenal anymore."
Sometimes I'm in my seat and there are children walking by and they're staring at me because they've obviously heard me and their parents have told me who I am. A lot of people know me because of the songs, and with them I treat the match like an opera. In the opera, the story is sung isn’t it? Well in football, my story is sung. A beginning song, then the build-up and the girls playing and getting the other fans to join in, and then at the end singing “We’ve won, because we’re Arsenal!” Even the players from the other teams know who I am because I’ve been following them for years. Throughout the game, I hand over to my choir when I want a rest. “Come on, help me out please, my voice isn’t so good today,” I’ll say, and then everyone joins in. I’ve got little kids doing that as well; they’ll do the Red Army one because I save my voice for the hard stuff.
Back when I first started going to the women's games, there were hardly any people there. But I just carried on my singing from the men’s, developed a rapport with the fans and introduced them to the songs. Just the other day I managed to get out “Kimmy, Kimmy, Kimmy, oy oy oy!” for our captain Kim Little, and a youngster further over took it up and did it as well. The very first one I begin with, whether away or at Boreham Wood, is always “Here we are, here we are in Boreham Wood, we're here to cheer a team that is really good, the girls are playing football, they're gonna score some goals and make us feel so good, the Arsenal girls, they are the best, the Arsenal girls, beat the rest, the Arsenal girls, make a run, they're quick on their feet and they score for fun!”
There's a guy called Brian, and he made up the one, you know the one that goes with Mesut Özil? “He's Arsène Wenger's man, better than Zidane…” Well, Brian took that and changed the words to Katie McCabe: “We've got McCabe, Katie McCabe, I just don't think you understand, she sits out on the wing, she passes with a zing, we've got Katie McCabe."
I made up one for Beth Mead, too, that goes, "There is a girl from Engerland, Meado, Meado, she scores the goals from off the wing, Meado, Meado, the girl does good, we knew she would, she plays the game like she should, because Beth Mead the footballer plays for Arsenal!" She loved it, she loved it! For Viv, the rest of the girls go all quiet, and then it’s my turn to sing “Miedema is magic, she's got two magic feet, and when she weaves her magic spell, she's got defenders beat. She mesmerises other teams with her mazy magic run, and when she sees the goal ahead she's scoring just for fun!"
And then there's songs that I've made up for specific teams, like the quadruple winning team in 2007. "My eyes have seen the glory of the girls in red and white, they are fighting for the club we love and love to fight, to fight, they won the quadruple in, and travelled many a mile to be the greatest in the land. Glory, glory, they're on the roll of honour, glory, glory, they're on the roll of honour. Praise the girls, they're on the roll of honour, and they got free coffee for a year!”
The bit about the coffee is because a cafe in Islington offered the girls free coffee for a year after winning the quadruple. We were watching the girls training once, and I sang that song, and Rachel Yankey came over and said, “But I don’t like coffee!” We all had a good laugh, and I remember saying, "never mind Rachel, I'm sure they'll give you tea instead!”
The funny thing is, back in time at the men’s games, sometimes they were being very misogynistic. I was a teacher, so I knew how to project my voice to use it sparingly but make sure that I could be heard. I’d hear people say, “Oh shut up! Get back to the kitchen! Does your husband know you're here?" And I would just chant back at them, "You'll never keep me quiet!" and everybody would laugh. So I turned it around on them. They were quite vicious, actually.
After the game’s finished, I’ll come home and straight away listen to the radio or put the telly on, flicking between the channels to watch any sport. And even when I go to bed, I’ll have talkSPORT or BBC 5Live on to listen to more of it. I have football going into all of my orifices!
When I think of my favourite memories, I don’t want to think of one that is to the detriment of the other team. I remember at a Cup final, the players were parading around with the Cup, and a whole bunch of them saw me sitting down. They all came up to me, plonked the cup in my hands and surrounded me. That was a magic moment for me, and the goalkeeper happened to be the person who was doing the media stuff. What she did was quite amazing, actually. She reproduced that picture of me holding the Cup with the other girls around me, and I was in colour and they were all in black and white. I can feel it now, me filling up with pride. I just, phew, it's giving me the shivers thinking about it because it reminds me that I’m doing something that I love and people are appreciating it.
Women’s Football Weekend makes me happy. I’ll be at The Hive to watch Arsenal against N17, probably being naughty and singing songs about them without saying their name. I’m always thinking about what new song I can sing before a match, and you might hear me if you keep a lookout, depending on where the cameras are. Plenty of times I’ve been shown on screen and also plenty of times they’ve heard me singing on screen, so it’ll be interesting because I have yet to go to that place since it became the new stadium.
I’m also pleased about Women’s Football Weekend because recently there’s been this business of Arsenal men and women having two home games on at almost the same time. To have it like this is much better, and there’ll be coverage in the newspaper too. They deserve it. The players are lovely, and they play excellent football as well. A proper North London derby!
We spoke to Maria at her home in Friern Barnet as part of the FA's Women's Football Weekend initiative on the weekend of November 13th and 14th. You can find out more about that, including fixtures, ticket information, and how to watch the games from the comfort of your own home, here. Tottenham v Arsenal is live on BBC One from 1.15pm onwards.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF MARIA PETRI
Interview: James Bird