Maria Petri shuffled painfully along the sideline and collapsed in 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 watch Arsenal, the club she had supported fiercely for 72 years and which became the love of her life.
She was tiny in stature, old in age and loud-mouthed. This match was just one of thousands she had attended – from youth matches, 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 could, and her fervent loyalty to Arsenal was unwavering.
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Petri was the club’s most iconic fan, known for his booming chants that could be heard so well that other fans would listen for them on WSL broadcasts. Former taxi driver Paul Chisnall, who was friends with Maria and had given her a ride to the match, remembers being impressed that she still came despite her failing health. She just didn’t seem up to the task. Soon after, he made the short trip to the bar to get her a coffee, but was shocked by the scene when he returned: Petri burst into song and implored 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 head, thinking who is this person?”
“When I finally met her, I realized this was the lady you could hear across the hill. You’d always know, ‘Maria’s over there.'” You could still hear her through the whole 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, such as how she refused to say the name of Arsenal’s arch-rivals ‘Tottenham’, instead calling them ‘N17’. Or how she brought multiple cameras to every game, always including a disposable one, so she could snap whatever caught her eye: Her favorite players, the dugouts, the cheering fans.
She had been known to hand out white sheets to other fans with songs she had written and composed herself. For Beth Mead, a star of the Arsenal team and top scorer at Euro 2022, she sang “There was a girl from England, Meado! Meado!” For star striker Vivianne Miedema, she sang: “Miedema is magic, she has two magic feet and when she weaves her magic spell, she has defenders beat!” For women’s football, it was: “If you like women’s football, clap your hands!”
Petri’s love affair with Arsenal began in 1950 when she was 11 years old and heard the club’s name repeated several times on the radio. She grew up in London to Greek parents who wouldn’t let her watch football: They told her football was “not for girls”. It was only when she was away from home eight years later, studying to be a teacher on the south coast, that she saw her first match: Portsmouth v Arsenal in 1958.
She has supported Arsenal in thousands of matches since, including home and away games. She attended away days in European capitals such as Brussels, Prague and Rome – the highlight of which was the 2006 men’s Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris, and the UEFA Women’s Cup final at Borehamwood in 2007. She was ever present, whether a youth game or an annual shareholder meeting. (Petri also owned Arsenal shares and would repeatedly use his platform to call for more investment in the women’s side.)
Her life was Arsenal. She never married, nor had any children. Her family was the club itself, although it wasn’t always easy. In a story for Mundial magazine, referring to misogyny she experienced at men’s matches, she wrote: “I’d hear people say, ‘Oh shut up! Come back to the kitchen! Does your husband know you’re here?’ And I just wanted to sing back to them, ‘You’ll never keep me quiet!’ and everybody would laugh. So I turned it on them.”
Petri’s relationship with the club’s players was also special. She was a regular at U23 matches and youth matches, there to support Arsenal in all its forms. Petri spoke several languages – her day job was as a language teacher at a north London high school — so she made an effort to speak to players in their native languages. When the players reached the first team, they would be on a first name basis with Petri.
Jordan Nobbs, who has played at Arsenal for over a decade, recalled one 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 receive immediate treatment from the club’s medical staff. She sang songs the whole journey back.
In the early years, she sometimes drove back with Akers and his squad, which also continued with European away days.
– If she stayed at the hotel we were in, we would try to look after her, says Akers. “Sometimes she was on our flight too 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 hop on the club’s charter plane with team managers.
As Petri grew older, she had a support system of Arsenal fans who helped her buy tickets to matches and arrange her travel to matches. Marcia Milnes met Petri over a decade ago and quickly bonded with a personal assistant, who sorted tickets, accompanied her to matches and got her food at the stadium. “It will 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 with her, or someone would say, ‘Oh, my God, Maria, I met you 10 years ago.
“She used to say that Arsenal was like her family and it made her feel special that everyone had this love for her and wanted to talk to her and hear her stories.”
Forever in our hearts❤️ pic.twitter.com/spPp3s2z1Y
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) 23 July 2022
Just as Petri always stuck with 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 visited her. During the first coronavirus-enforced lockdown, the club sent former midfield legend Ray Parlor (339 appearances from 1992-2004) to Petri’s little house in North London with a gift: the FA Cup. The club also arranged a special permit for her taxi driver, Paul, which would allow him to drive under the Emirates and into a bay right next to a lift, where club staff would help her get to her seat.
When she died, the tributes was immediate 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 — plus thousands of fans. Within hours, her name was trending on Twitter. FIFA even paid tribute, while the Arsenal club acted represented her prominently in a display. Mikel Arteta, speaking at a press conference that evening, described her as an “integral” part of the club’s support.
“The way she transmitted Arsenal values and the feel 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.
“Football is for the fans. It can be the best game in the world, but if there’s no one to watch it, it’s nothing.”
Tonight, Arsenal players past and present, as well as fans, mourn the loss of a unique, much-loved family member. Rest in peace Mary. https://t.co/dlhpHwlL3F
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) 22 July 2022
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 the Emirates Stadium, Meadow Park [Borehamwood] and at away games wherever we play.”
The news of her death came as a shock even to those closest to her. When Petri’s friend Milnes was called on a Friday afternoon in July, she was devastated. Just that morning she had 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 30 August. The doors to the church were red and white, while many of her closest friends wore Arsenal shirts to the service. A number of Arsenal staff also attended, including Arsenal Women’s captain Kim Little – one of Petri’s favorite players – and Arsenal boss Vinai Venkatesham.
With the season opener with Manchester City postponed, Arsenal kick off their campaign against Brighton at Borehamwood. It will be the first home game without Petri. Tributes are planned, while Petri’s face will grace the game’s official programme.
There was a time she told that others would one day come, though she prayed for only one reason that it would never come. She would say: “I’ll be so upset when I die because I won’t be able to see Arsenal anymore.”