FP Book Review: My Life and Lessons in Red and White – Arsène Wenger

What is the measure of a life? Is it tangible successes or achievements, personal or professional? Is it quality or quantity of output? Is it the legacy we leave behind? Is it happiness?

“If happiness is liking the life one lives, I can say I have been happy, and still am.”

Arsene Wenger

For the man from Alsace, what matters still are the “game and the people who love it, those moments of grace that football offers to those who love it and who give it their all.” This is a man passionate about the beautiful game, many times even at the expense of his loved ones with whom he regrets not spending enough time but never the game that took him away from them. And for the first time, he’s telling his story – of an intense, precocious boy dreaming about football, growing up in a village that he says still feels like home to him, of an equally intense and private young man with a dream, obsessive about a sport that he has sacrificed everything for, mostly gladly; a sport that has, in return, not always given him everything it could have but far more than most, and a quirk of fate where every team he has ever coached or played in donned the red and white.

When you look back on your time on this earth, what is it that you want to remember? What is it that you want to be remembered for?

Whenever asked who I’d like to be my dinner guest, no restrictions, one of my top answers has always been the gent whose vision moulded into reality first lured me to the North London club I’ve called home for 19 years and counting. Arsene Wenger and his principled, now confirmed obsessive, pursuit of football as collective art and his belief that it was his duty to support, encourage, facilitate all that was beautiful in the game and its players.

When he announced his departure from Arsenal in April 2018, I had to face writing a piece I’d always known I would have to write someday but doubted if I could ever do justice to. How do you circle your arms around a 22-year career; how, more importantly, can you crystallise the essence of a person’s impact on you when it is as lasting and as potent as this one? I decided to talk about the intangibles he always sought to capture through the players he coached.

“Let those who know him talk about anecdotes and memories. I want to talk about his art, his philosophy, about the man who has no right claiming as much as love and respect in my heart and space in my life when we’ve never met and might never meet.”

But I’m not alone in wanting to know more about the fiercely private person behind the philosophy, behind the unabashed public display of affection and passion with the game—and it was with this expectation that I eagerly awaited his autobiography. Over the past almost two decades, I’ve spent more time with this club and this man than I have with many people I know in person. Since his retirement, I’ve followed him via his commentary and analyst work for beIN Sports, because I missed listening to his thoughts. During the week of the book’s release, I watched most of the interviews he was a part of, happy to see him incredibly fresh and relaxed in the two years since he left the club. Which is why it’s hard for me to write this and admit that My Life and Lessons in Red and White felt, in large parts, like a wasted opportunity.

The early chapters offer the most insight and were, for me, the most captivating. Tracing the path that led a boy, born in a postwar Europe in a “village that was like an island” (and had only recently returned to France after being annexed by Hitler during WWII) to the most dizzying weights of world football is no easy job, but there is a sparse elegance as we are transported to the “handkerchief-sized space between the bistro, the school, the church, the town hall, the shops, and the football ground that was two kilometres from the train station where nobody ever went” where a young Arsene and the rest of the Duttlenheim children spent most of their days.

And yet, as he points out, even back then, he didn’t share their dreams.

Football was already dominating his waking, and sleeping, moments beyond the boundaries of what his peers and elders considered a deeply invested endeavour, but a pastime nonetheless—was he aware back then how it would soon become his only religion, he wonders—and there was in him a sort of restlessness and impatience to go beyond the confines of the village and everything he, and so many from the village, had ever known. 

Simultaneously, he was receiving an education in people and psychology through his parents’ bistro, La Croix d’Or, which, like so many Alsatian bistros, was the heart of the village. It is here that he listened to the customers and learned human nature, and how to judge, measure, and understand people; how to recognise and respect roots and the ways in which the places we grow up in and the people who surround us in those formative years can shape our minds, bodies, and personalities so that we carry a piece of it, of them, no matter how far away we travel from the place and our former lives.

It is these connections, the “crossing paths” and mutual support that are evident throughout his early years in football, whether at AS Mutzig, Mulhouse, or Racing Strasbourg, the club where he juggled playing and coaching roles and that would serve as his first “laboratory” (bringing a psychiatrist into the club for the first time, among other things like “invisible training”—dietary regimes, massage, mental preparation, sleep, quality of life, the people the players surround themselves with), and later at Monaco, Nagoya and Arsenal. In fact, it was a cigarette and decent English skills from his months spent in Cambridge as a twenty-nine-year-old that got him an invite to David Dein’s house where a most enduring friendship began because of Arsene’s skillful charades rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

Throughout the book, even in the latter parts that sometimes read more like Wikipedia entries, there is a clear acknowledgement of not just the people who influenced and helped him, but also those who deserve a mention because they formed a part of the journey, however small (for example, his friendship with the legendary Carlos Alberto Torres and his son Alexandre who was one of his first signings when he went to Nagoya). I enjoyed these discoveries—how he was an integral part of the Cannes centre de formation where, later, stars like Zidane and Viera would develop, how pivotal to his career his relationship with Glenn Hoddle would prove to be even after he was no longer his coach, how the team he most admired as a young boy was the legendary Di Stefano-led Real Madrid team of the 50s—and wished their occurrence was more consistent once we reached the Arsenal years of which much is already widely known in comparison.

Looking back now, Wenger admits to being a little ashamed about his uncompromising nature, the contradictions within him of winning the right way, never at all costs, but also of being a bad loser, of losses haunting him for weeks, months, years, a pain and suffering only he was privy to. He admits that all art “contains an element of pain and requires a taste for effort”—it was his choice to give his life in service to football—but it was a completely unbalanced existence, and he was also lucky that the timing was right for his ideas to come to fruition, that certain things lay at the feet of fate.

When you’re used to listening to someone talk on a weekly basis, you’re familiar with facial cues and vocal inflections, their sense of personality. Never was this clearer than with Monsieur Wenger and his cheeky smile and dry wit, his sincerity and intelligence, his class. So, maybe it had a little to do with the translation, or maybe, when faced with the constraints of longform narrative, without someone to draw out the stories and the memories, it proved too difficult a task to decide what to focus on at the macro and micro narrative levels. But barring welcome flashes of the gentleman we know and love, this surprisingly short book reads too detached, too on-the-surface and routinely abstract and rather vague for someone who has no lack of depth or dearth of stories and fascinating recollections. It was never going to be a tell-all, because that isn’t who he is, but surely there was space enough in the middle ground for more elaboration into a life and person as fascinating as this.

One of the things I did enjoy reading about was how his constant pursuit for elegance and grace led to a focus on details, in preparation, technical aspects, and in how he conducted himself on and off the pitch, in turn passing along those values to the players under him.

“A coach should instill in his team a respect for the game, a feeling for the group and not simply for himself.”

As expected, I enjoyed reading about his vision for the game, past present and future, his philosophy, his thoughts on the social responsibility of sport. But, with the time he has had after finally stepping away, learning as he says to “live without Arsenal”, I craved deeper introspection than some of the broader, more sweeping declarations in the book.

Those brief moments when the curtain was pulled back and we discerned the mind of this visionary man were staggeringly compelling, and I wished the book gave itself over more to the emotional depth that’s only hinted at; but the tantalising glimpses are, on their own, enough to confirm a profound thinker, a dignified, intelligent, stubborn, passionate man who feels much and deeply.

How do you encompass a life? What goes into the making of a person, what moulds and shapes them?

My answer to the dinner guest question hasn’t changed and I won’t dissuade anyone from reading My Life and Lessons in Red and White. In fact, now more than ever, I’d love to sit down and have a chat with Le Prof, without the formality and expectations of narrative.

“Passing the ball is communicating with another person; it’s being in the service of another person. It’s crucial. For the pass to be a good one, the player has to put himself in the position of the person who’s going to receive it. It’s an act of intelligence and generosity, what I call technical empathy.”

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.