Arsenal say goodbye to Maria Petri, club's biggest fan who attended games for over 64 years

Maria Petri shuffled achingly along the sideline and collapsed into her seat. It was last spring, and the 83-year-old Petri was feeling frail, her usually booming voice reduced to a whisper, but still she came to Borehamwood to see Arsenal, the club she had fiercely supported for 72 years and that became the love of her life.

She was tiny in stature, old in age and loud in the mouth. This game was just one among thousands she had attended -- from youth games, to senior men's and women's matches at Highbury, the Emirates and Borehamwood, to international away days. She attended a staggering amount, whenever she possibly could, her ardent loyalty to Arsenal unflinching.

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Petri was the club's most iconic fan, famous for her booming chants that could be heard so well that fellow fans would listen out for them on WSL broadcasts. Former taxi driver Paul Chisnall, who was friends with Maria and had given her a ride to the game, remembers being impressed that she still came despite her failing health. She simply didn't seem up to the task. Soon after, he made the short walk to the bar to get her a coffee, but was shocked at the scene when he returned: Petri was belting out chants and imploring the crowd around her to do the same.

Vic Akers, the coach of Arsenal Women from 1987-2009, gives the same response that any Arsenal player, coach or fan gives when you mention her name. "All I can remember was this voice that used to echo through my mind, thinking who is this person?"

"When I eventually met with her, I realised this is the lady you could hear all over the ground. You would always know 'Maria's over there.' You could still hear her among all that crowd," Akers adds.

On July 22, Maria Petri died. Last season would be her last in the stands, 64 years after her first game. Over the years, she became known for her many quirks, like how she refused to say the name of Arsenal's archrivals "Tottenham," instead calling them "N17." Or how she would take multiple cameras to each game, which always included a disposable one so she could snap whatever caught her eye: Her favourite players, the dugouts, fans cheering.

She had been known to hand out white sheets of paper to other fans with chants she had written and created herself. For Beth Mead, a star of the Arsenal team and the top scorer at Euro 2022, she sang "There was a girl from England, Meado! Meado!" For star forward Vivianne Miedema, she sang: "Miedema is magic, she's got two magic feet, and when she weaves her magic spell, she's got defenders beat!" For women's football, it was: "If you like ladies football, clap your hands!"

Petri's love affair with Arsenal began in 1950 when she was 11 years old and would hear the club's name repeated several times on the radio. She grew up in London to Greek parents who would not allow her to watch football: They'd tell her football was "not for girls." It was only when she was away from home eight years later, while she was studying to be a teacher on the south coast, that she saw her first match: Portsmouth vs. Arsenal in 1958.

She has supported Arsenal at thousands of games since, including home and away matches. She attended away days in European capitals like Brussels, Prague and Rome -- the height of which was the men's 2006 Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in Paris, and the UEFA Women's Cup final win at Borehamwood in 2007. She was ever-present, whether it be a youth game or an annual shareholders meeting. (Petri also owned Arsenal shares and would repeatedly use her platform to call for more investment in the women's side.)

Her life was Arsenal. She never married, nor did she have any kids. Her family was the club itself, although that wasn't always easy. In a story for Mundial magazine, when referencing the misogyny she experienced at men's games, she wrote: "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."

Petri's relationship with the club's players was also special. She was a regular at U23 games and youth games, there to support Arsenal in all its forms. Petri spoke multiple languages -- her day job was as a language teacher in a north London high school -- so she made an effort to speak to players in their native languages. By the time players reached the first team, they'd be on first-name terms with Petri.

Jordan Nobbs, who has played at Arsenal for over a decade, recalled a time when Petri rolled her ankle outside the team bus: The players helped her on board and drove her back from the game with them so she could get immediate treatment from the club's medical staff. She sang songs the whole journey back.

In the early years, she would sometimes ride back with Akers and his squad, something that continued with European away days, too.

"If she was staying at the hotel we were, then we would try and look after her," Akers says. "Sometimes she was on our flight as well, and the girls enjoyed talking to her." There was also a time when her flight back from a preseason tour in Asia was cancelled, so she was invited to jump on the club charter flight with team executives.

As Petri got older, she had a support system of Arsenal fans who'd help her buy tickets for matches and arrange her travel to games. Marcia Milnes met Petri over a decade ago and quickly became akin to a personal assistant, sorting tickets, accompanying her to games and getting her food at the stadium. "It would take about half an hour [to reach her seat at a game] because everyone would come up to her," she says. "They would either just want to chat to her, or someone would say, "Oh, God, Maria, I met you 10 years ago.

"She used to say Arsenal was like her family, and it made her feel special that everybody had this love for her and wanted to speak to her and hear her stories."

Just as Petri always stuck by the club when they needed her, Arsenal seemed to rally around her. A few years ago, Petri spent a few nights in hospital and two members of the coaching staff paid her a visit. During the first coronavirus-enforced lockdown, the club sent former midfield legend Ray Parlour (339 appearances from 1992-2004) round to Petri's small north London house with a present: The FA Cup. The club also arranged a special permit for her taxi driver, Paul, that would allow him to drive under the Emirates and into a bay directly next to an elevator, where club staff would help her get to her seat.

When she died, the tributes were instant and plentiful: The club sent a tribute followed by several players -- including England defender Leah Williamson, Arsenal midfielder Jordan Nobbs and former Arsenal/England striker Ian Wright -- as well as thousands of fans. Within hours, her name was trending on Twitter. FIFA even paid tribute, while the Arsenal club shop represented her prominently in a display. Mikel Arteta, speaking at a news conference that evening, described her as an "integral" part of the club's support.

"The way she transmitted Arsenal values and the feeling of this football club was something I have never seen before. She was everywhere, every single week and she will be missed. Big time," he said.

Arsenal went even further: "Rarely can it be said that 'games just won't be the same' without a supporter, but Maria's presence... will truly leave a void on matchdays at Emirates Stadium, Meadow Park [Borehamwood] and at away matches wherever we are playing."

The news of her death came as a shock even to those closest to her. When Petri's friend Milnes received a call on that Friday afternoon in July she was heartbroken. Just that morning she'd been on the phone with the club to arrange her season ticket for the 2022-23 WSL season.

Petri's funeral took place in north London on Aug. 30. The doors of the church were red and white, while many of her closest friends wore Arsenal shirts to the service. A number of staff at Arsenal attended too, including Arsenal women's captain Kim Little -- one of Petri's favourite players -- and Arsenal chief executive Vinai Venkatesham.

With their season opener with Manchester City postponed, Arsenal will kick off the campaign against Brighton at Borehamwood. It will be the first home game without Petri. Tributes have been planned, while Petri's face will adorn the game's official programme.

It was a time she told others would one day come, although she prayed for one reason only that it never would. She would say: "I shall be oh so upset when I die, because I won't be able to watch Arsenal anymore."