For the uninformed, Arsène Wenger was the longest serving and most successful manager of the English football club Arsenal. He was appointed the manager of Arsenal in September 1996 and served the position till the 2017-18 English Premier League season.
Football is the most widely followed sport in the world and when the following is at such a scale, it might seem hard to understand the rationale behind it. I believe this can be attributed to any sport for that matter of fact. You can find religious fan following of teams and/or players in any form of sport. More often than not, the fan following, in my opinion, is driven by passion. A surprising fraction of sports fans might find it hard to pin-point exactly why they support the teams or players they support.
It’s a question I get asked many times myself. In this post, I’m going to ask myself that very question and try to formulate my answer for the same. There is no doubt that a lot of it is down to passion, but I feel it goes much more deeper than just that. I’ll take a trip down memory lane and try to recollect why I fell in love with Arsenal and just how important the role of a certain Arsène Wenger was, in all of this.
As a kid who grew up in India, it’s pretty hard to escape the grasp of cricket. My earliest fanboy moments were definitely towards the national cricket team and some of it’s stars. However, once every 4 years there’s a small matter of a football world cup that takes over even the most remote cities of the country. My first tryst with a world cup was in 2002 when Brazil won the tournament held in Korea and Japan. However, my earliest exposure to football was a few months before the same.
It was the dawn of a new millennium and the personal computer was just starting to become a recurring theme in every household. As a kid all I cared for was that I could play PC games on these over-sized calculators and I enjoyed it. I remember my neighbor had just bought home a personal computer and he was playing this fancy sounding game called “FIFA 2001”. I didn’t realize what FIFA was back then, but I soon figured out that this particular one was football game. My neighbor challenged me for a game of FIFA and I could hardly hold back my excitement.
It then dawned upon me that I had to make a choice of teams in order to play the match and as a 6 year old, not knowing much about football, I simply blurted out “I want Beckham’s team”. My neighbor replied he had already taken Manchester United and he suggested I go ahead with this team called “Arsenal”. He said, “they are a good team as well. You can go for it”. Not understanding much, I decided to go ahead with the game anyway and that is when I first saw the famous red and white of Arsenal. It was on a virtual screen but my prominent memories from that game were that of a player by the name “Henry” and the beautiful red and white kit combination.
Football wasn’t on the agenda for another year until the 2002 showpiece took place. While I don’t think a 7 year old would have followed much of the game play or indeed the semantics of the tournament but I again added a few more names to my collection of favorite players. Unsurprisingly, it had a lot of Brazilians.
Another year passed and I slowly began understanding the game, the different competitions, the rivalries and as well the role of a football manager. It was around this time that I discovered that Arsenal – the team with a red and white kit that I first encountered on a virtual screen – had a manager with first name as “Arsène”. For a kid this was amusing and intriguing at the same time. Was this a planned move ? Surely, this wasn’t co-incidence, I thought. He was also in the news at the time for having made a claim that he believed his team could go an entire season unbeaten. I somehow felt reassured that I had indeed picked a strong team to support, but little did I know that Wenger would soon be mocked for his verdict regarding his own team. Arsenal most definitely didn’t go that season unbeaten and what was worse was that they would eventually go on to lose the league title to Manchester United that season as well.
These events took place during the peak of the Ferguson-Wenger battle years as well(which is beautifully covered in the documentary above). I remember Sir Alex Ferguson lifting the title that year while Wenger had to settle for airtime on the British football shows where experts mercilessly went after Wenger for his “comical” statement and slated his lack of understanding and respect for the English game.
A league season later, Arsène had the last laugh. Arsenal went the entire 2003-04 league season unbeaten. An unprecedented and monumental feat that to this day, has not been replicated despite the seemingly endless supply of resources at the disposal of the modern football clubs.
It was quite surreal. The team I loved had just gone an entire season unbeaten and were being called the “invincibles”. Surely, this team was going to dominate for another decade at least, I pondered to myself.
Sadly, it was as good as it got under the Wenger regime. It also came at a time when I was really beginning to enjoy and understand the game better than ever before. But it was also a time when the footballing landscape would change completely. The arrival of uber-wealthy club owners meant that clubs could now more or less “buy” instant success and this has since been the theme in world football.
Arsenal remained under the same ownership but had already made plans to move into higher capacity stadium, building upon the success of Wenger’s teams. This meant that the club operated on a shoestring budget and Wenger was often left fighting for scraps for a decade that followed. Between 2005 and 2014, Arsenal would not lift any silverware, embarking on a 9 year long barren spell owing to the transition to the new stadium and lack of resources to remain competitive against the financial might of it’s rivals. Fans, including myself, could hardly believe the developments, being accustomed to success under Wenger, in the years preceding the move to the new stadium.
“We do not buy superstars, we make them.”
This was a period when I was in my high school and inevitably, football was the topic of discussion every day. It was blatantly evident that Arsenal were selling off their best players every transfer window and bringing in unproven young talent to replace the departed stars. The brand of football, that young Arsenal team played still remains one of the most exciting and expansive I’ve seen during my time as an Arsenal fan, but the team had very little to show for it.
And while Arsenal failed to lift any silverware year after year, their rivals did so and in some style. I was very soon left behind as one of the few Gooners(supporters of Arsenal F.C) in my friend circle. It was around this time that I got questioned by many as to why exactly I still supported Arsenal. They were no longer a power they once were and they clearly didn’t have much hope of changing it anytime soon either. What was the point ?, everyone remarked.
This is when I started to realize my love and support for Arsenal goes beyond just winning or losing. It was something much more profound. I had become an admirer of the values of the club and no one personified it better than Wenger himself. In fact, it’s a strong argument that some of the values that the club withholds today were not necessarily present before it’s association with Wenger. To cut a long story short, the days of sunshine and happiness under Wenger were over. Wenger would embark on the most difficult assignment of his career, which was to remain economically and professionally relevant – not so much competitive, but relevant – and the 9 barren years that followed, I’m sure took a toll on everyone associated with the club. Most notably, on Wenger himself.
“I would say personally, from 2006 to 2015 was certainly the period where I needed to be the strongest and did the best job. Because to accept to commit to five years when you build the stadium to work with restricted resources and keep the club in a position where we can pay our debts back, I personally feel I did my best job in that period. Not the most glamorous maybe, but the most difficult.”
During the time Wenger had the opportunity to leave for greener pastures at bigger clubs on many occasions but his loyalty to the club and adherence to his principles and values left a lasting impression on me. His views on football and life were quite eye-opening and his insistence to persist with them even at times of harrowing adveristy was truly remarkable. One of my favorite quotes of his, and the one that probably explains why I admire the man so much is the following.
“The moral values I’ve learnt in my life I’ve learnt through football. As a club, we have an educational purpose. To give back to those people who love Arsenal so that they learn moral values from our game and how we behave.”
“I was always ready to fight for that and if needed to lose my job for the values I believe in [that] are right. I believe that I am in accordance with my club for that and I am absolutely proud of that.
Overall, [after] all the wins and losses and all that, what I believe is that this club is respected for its values.”
It’s ideals like these that place Wenger above the rest to me. In an age where most individuals and organizations embrace the idea of “winning at all costs”, Wenger’s approach was a refreshing and brave departure from the said tradition.
Viewing Wenger at work, observing his studious approach and learning his philosophies point to the idea that, doing the right thing is no more important than doing things the right way. This is probably the biggest lesson one can learn from Wenger’s work and I feel that it’s a strong value one can aspire to inculcate in one’s life.
I believe Wenger’s work transcends boundaries and what he has built will likely stand the test of time. All of this was possible because, of his strict adherence to his principles and values even during times of grave adversity. Wenger had famously remarked that at Arsenal, he was always just “2 and half games away from crisis”. Such was the pressure under which he was required to operate. When things go wrong and you and your work are put under public scrutiny, the temptation is to give in and take the easiest possible route to please the naysayers. In footballing terms, this meant spending money in the transfer market to bring in players to please the fans or adopting a more pragmatic style of play.
Any decent manager would be wise enough to do just that. But that’s what separates the good from the great. Wenger resisted the temptation to splash the cash on so many occasions but instead made prudent and astute investments, focusing on youth development and homegrown talents that kept the club in a strong position financially. He stayed true to his style of play and footballing philosophies and his faith in his unproven young stars also began to pay off over time with flourishing results.
Speaking of his approach in dealing with the team internally and in the transfer market, Wenger made the following remark.
“It’s not about popularity, it’s about competence.”
The way he managed his team and the club’s finances was another prodigious example of staying true to the values and principle he believed in. The fact that after all these years, more than two decades, he was still able to be consistent in his belief has really got me intrigued beyond measure. It’s so easy to take these things for granted.
Wenger had his chances to step away on a winning note, to call it day and end with a grand flourish more than once. But true to his years of service, he decided to stay on for as long as he felt capable of leading the team out on to the field. It’d have been fitting for him to have finished with a flourish but Wenger wasn’t here to write fairy tales. He was just doing what he loved. He left when he felt appropriate. If anything, as far as mere statistics are concerned, his final season was also his poorest with Arsenal. But stats have seldom conveyed the complete story.
When Arsène Wenger took over at Arsenal, I was a year and 7 months old. He is all I have ever known as far football and Arsenal are concerned. To me he has been a great reference in how I aspire to carry myself through the highs and lows of life. I have never come across him in person and I doubt I ever will, yet through his work, he has influenced the lives of thousands of people like myself who shall remain forever grateful for his contributions. At 23, I’m at a stage in my life where I have more questions than answers, but if I had to pick a shot at what the purpose of the human life could possibly be, I’d say it would be to try and influence the lives of people in a positive manner through our work – much like Arsène Wenger.
Certainly, Arsène Wenger’s work has influenced lives beyond the boundaries of his field of work and he excelled at what he did so well, that at times at seemed more like an art. But ofcourse it hasn’t been all plain sailing. Since Arsenal’s move to the Emirates Stadium, their new higher capacity stadium, as already mentioned before Wenger had to oversee a transition that took decade of rebuilding the club. During this time, he has also gone through some incredibly humiliating lows in professional and personal life, all of them being well documented in the public eye. But this is what adds to his aura. He is, much like all of us, subjected to the harsh realities of life. Constantly questioned by his own people and yet he has found the energy, hunger and drive to keep moving constantly for more than 2 decades in a job where the average life span of a manager is comparable to that of a cockroach!
From starting out as a farmer in his early childhood, to selling cigarettes as a part-time income generator, to working in his parent’s restaurant to pursuing a modest career in football and then eventually taking up football management, Arsène Wenger has had quite the journey.
He has been an incredible inspiration to me in my life and he will continue to do so. The football season starts in about a month’s time and it’s slowly seeping into me that for the first time in my lifetime, I will witness Arsenal, without Arsène.