It is the kind of statement that would make Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho throw up in disgust. And make some of Arsenal’s own supporters shake their heads in disbelief. But what the heck, as the man turns 67, it is time to put it out in the open:
I believe in Arsene Wenger.
Let me begin with a confession. When I started following football in the late eighties, Arsenal were THE team to hate. They were the the equivalent of the ugly Aussies of cricket in the seventies, letting their penchant for brawling and occasional thuggery overshadow some very obvious talent. Conventional wisdom, at least in the circles in which I roamed was that if you really – REALLY – liked football, you followed teams like Liverpool, Manchester United, Barcelona, the Milans, Real Madrid…not Arsenal. To make matters worse, they deprived Liverpool (the team I support) of the league title with literally the last kick of the 1988-89 campaign, a result that was like an arrow in the heart of Merseyside. It was as if someone had pulled the wings off a butterfly.
And yet today, it is rarely that I watch an Arsenal match without rooting for the Gunners (well, obviously, I still support Liverpool when they play against them – THAT 1989 defeat won’t be forgotten in a hurry). And the reason is that tall man in their dugout, looking for all the world like a stretched version of Star Trek’s Mr Spock, more often than not struggling to zip up a jacket (Puma even made an ad campaign around the zipper on their jacket featuring him), or fretting and fuming.
People will point out that it has been more than a decade since Arsenal won the title – a phenomenon that lead Mourinho to dub Wenger a “specialist in failure.” They will say that Wenger has been “out of touch with the realities of the game” with his hesitation to sign marquee football players for huge sums of money. That his penchant for developing lesser-known talent is suicidal given the fact that that very talent very often wanders off to competing clubs at the first whiff of fame. And of course, they will keep returning to the argument that just playing elegant football and finishing in the top four or five of one of the most competitive football leagues in the world is “not enough” in “this day and age.” It is ironically that last term “this day and age” that sums up my affection for the man.
I believe in Arsene Wenger because he seems out of place in “this day and age” where football seems to be marked by trophy counts, cynicism, in-your-face arrogance and balance sheets. The man instead seems to be just obsessed with something far more basic – good football. Football that is about speed and passing, that is more saber than cudgel, more dribble than clearance. When I started following football, Arsenal were known as one of the “hardest” clubs in the league, marked by tough marking and hard tackling. Today, some consider Wenger’s team to be “too weak” because they do not push and shove the opposition as frequently as some other clubs do. They still manage to finish in the top five regularly though, win the occasional cup tournament and always seem to make the top European competitions.
Arsenal under Arsene Wenger are a constant reminder of the fact that football is a visual sport, that it can be beautiful and breathtaking even when goals are not being scored. Let’s face it, goal scoring seldom occupies more than a few minutes in a ninety minute match. The gentle slalom, the delicate chip, the sudden break from the back, the lazy back heel…all these have as much place in the sport as that shot that heads goalwards.
Yes, there are times when Wenger’s conduct seems stubborn. There are times when I wished (even though I support Liverpool) that he would just go out and get a more expensive celebrity player, instead of worrying about stadiums and facilities. But he somehow always manages to surprise people by extracting just that little more out of a lesser known one, and giving his players a better arena to play in. And no matter how much one criticizes the man, one cannot but help flipping to the channel showing his team because you know they will be out there, passing and sliding the ball like a pearl on silk.
The man has been openly abused by his own club’s supporters, criticized by his contemporaries and has even had a few argy bargy moments with other managers (just ask Mourinho and Alan Pardew). And yet, he refuses to change his core philosophy – of football being something to be enjoyed rather than to be won. And as he turns 67 today, I doubt he will change. He will be standing on the touch lines, fidgeting and fiddling, fighting jacket zips, throwing up his hands in despair at perceived refereeing injustice, and asking his team to not just win, but win by playing beautifully. He will still see his best players depart in search for greener pastures, and he will still go out and unearth new ones.
Speaking to The Guardian recently, Wenger said, “If God exists and one day I go up there and he will ask: ‘Do you want to come in? What have you done in your life?’ And the only answer I will have is: ‘I tried to win football games.’ He will say: ‘Is that all you have done?’ And the only answer I will have is: ‘It’s not as easy as it looks.’”
It was not.
It never is.
Which is why I believe in Arsene Wenger.
Happy birthday, Arsene.