LONDON — The crowd at Arsenal's scruffy Highbury stadium started singing early Saturday afternoon and but for some dry-throated minutes when their team spotted a goal to visiting Leicester City, picked up the choruses of "We Are Unbeatable" as two goals from the home side sealed a 2-1 win and a remarkable undefeated season.
It was the first time an English soccer team has gone through a season in the top division without a loss since the Preston North End "Invincibles" kept a clean slate in the loss column over a 22-game season in 1889.
Arsenal won 26 games and tied 12 in what will remain a bittersweet year, in which the club's main ambition of a European Champions League title was snuffed out in the continental tournament's quarterfinal round. Yet it ended in the sunshine of a May afternoon, with its trademark high-octane passing game producing goals by Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira and punching holes through a Leicester defense that looked as if it were playing uphill against the onslaught.
Arsenal has emerged as the elite team of England's Premiership in the last few seasons, largely on the strength of a roster filled with non-English players. Its starting 11 includes only two English-born regulars, the rest a cosmopolitan brew of French, Dutch, Cameroonians and Brazilians that has won admirers across Europe for its fluid, aggressive style.
The club was assembled by shrewd French Coach Arsene Wenger, and its soul remains French, borrowing heavily from that country's national team for its core: It is built around the clattering tackles of central midfielder Vieira, the creative playmaking of winger Robert Pires and the athletic exuberance of striker Henry.
But Arsenal's championship also underscored the defining characteristic of England's modern game: But for wealthy rivals Manchester United and Chelsea, the competitive level has tailed off noticeably in the last few years as a few clubs grow richer, are able to buy the world's top players, and watch the rest of the league slip into near-competitive irrelevancy.
The result is a mini-competition involving three clubs, with the rest of the 20-team league clawing to avoid finishing in the bottom three and being dropped to a lower division. Liverpool, this season's fourth-place finisher, ended up 30 points behind Arsenal.
Arsenal's title was its third in seven years, while Manchester United is the only other club to have won the championship since 1996. The top teams may play with speed and imagination, but as Guardian football writer David Lacey noted Saturday: "Arsenal are the golden tip of a nickel-plated competition." None of that mattered to Arsenal fans who spilled onto the streets of north London to celebrate their team's achievement. Highbury is sometimes known as "The Library" because the home fans tend toward polite restraint. But there was plenty of singing on this day, as trophies were awarded and history made.
"They're not foreigners; they're just our boys," said a joyous Ian Stone, who has the benefit of season tickets at midfield to admire Henry and his teammates. "The English may have an ambivalent attitude toward the French as a whole, but as individuals they really seem up for the fight. Vieira is an enormous hero at Highbury."
Wenger also has plenty of admirers. It was Wenger's eye for talent that brought in Henry and Vieira from the Italian league, where each had yet to become a superstar.
That they saved for England.
"I think this is the best title win, because we have always been at the top and to lead from the front is difficult and not to lose a game is amazing," Wenger said Saturday after the spotless season.
Even with the high number of points to be had by bottom-feeding off the weaker teams, an undefeated season remains a tough road, requiring not only handling Manchester United and Chelsea twice a season but maintaining the concentration to stave off defeats on sleepy winter nights against the Evertons and Wolverhamptons.
Yet it's clear that Wenger has grander ambitions for Arsenal than merely racking up English league championships. "These players want to get better, and I'm confident they want more," he said. Wenger knows that football's road to glory now leads through European titles, and by turning the club name into a global brand.
To do so, even Highbury itself must be sacrificed. The club is building a stadium around the corner, a 60,000-seater that will open in 2007 with the requisite cushy frills to keep corporate clients happy and the money for talent flowing.
Highbury will be converted into apartments. And the field where championships and hearts were won will become a garden.