Arigato, Arsène Wenger – The Portrait of a Sensei

Arsene Wenger is known for many things – his Japanese philosophy, his then-revolutionary training methods, and The Invincibles – but he equally represents the idea of football as art, and its principled pursuit.
Arigato, Arsène Wenger - The Portrait of a Sensei
Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli.

About 20 kilometres southwest of Strasbourg, in France, there is a small town by the name of Duttlenheim. In 2015, when its most famous son completed a historic 20 years at the helm of one of England’s top clubs, its population census counted 2912 inhabitants.

Arsene Wenger grew up there, his parents owning an automobile spare parts business and a local bistro. Alphonse, his father, also the manager of the local team, introduced a six-year-old Wenger to the game, and in that extremely religious region of Alsace, Wenger and his friends often required permission to miss vespers (sunset prayer services) from the town’s Catholic priest to be able to play football.

If you Google Duttlenheim now, not much shows up. The Wengers’ bistro La Croix D’or, the Golden Cross, is now under new management and renamed, and one imagines that if any traces of Le Professeur ever lingered, they are now long gone. Yet, it was at this bistro where a young Wenger spent hours observing the football-loving patrons, unconsciously setting the first brick, fresh from the kiln, of what was to come. Then, in shades of foreshadowing, a 16-year-old Wenger broke into FC Duttlenheim’s first team and took over the responsibility of “managing” a side without a coach that only had a person who supervised training sessions.

But it wasn’t until much later, in 1974, that his path crossed with Paul Frantz’s. The Frenchman was the first manager with no professional-player background to earn his coaching badges. He was also hailed as the visionary who introduced a scientific approach into the French game. Frantz was Wenger’s first exposure to the transformative power the right training and diet can have on a player. The rest would be refined during his time in Japan with Nagoya Grampus Eight; a country Wenger also thanks for reigniting his passion for the beautiful game, a country, then, England also need to be grateful to.

Arsenal Football Club announced Arsene Wenger’s appointment in September 1996. This virtually unknown, gangly, bespectacled Frenchman had been hired with the backing of David Dein, Arsenal’s vice-chairman; going against the proposed favourite, a certain Johan Cruijff.

“At first, I thought: What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properly?”

Arsenal captain, Tony Adams

Adams, who had just a few days prior shared with the team his struggles with alcoholism, wasn’t the only skeptic. On September 24, two days after the announcement, Glen Moore of the Independent put the reality of English football into perspective,

“It is a measure of the insularity of the English game that when Arsene Wenger’s name emerged as Arsenal’s favoured candidate for their vacant manager’s job, many supporters were asking: ‘Arsene who?’”

– Glen Moore

22 years later, I’m at a loss for words. There’s not much I can say that hasn’t been said before; yet, I must. Let the historians talk about the statistics, the facts, the trophies, the trajectory of a glittering career that included the Invincibles, and probably the first manager to bring up broccoli, according to Henry Winter. 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.

In 1964, when Wenger was still nicknamed Petit, a 31-year-old Susan Sontag wrote in her diary that art was a “form of nourishment (of consciousness, the spirit).” Her words built upon the theories of Wassily Kandinsky. The famous Russian painter and art theorist published “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” in 1910, a book that delved into why we make and need art. In it, he noted three main elements required of an artist. The third, that of pure artistry, is the duty of every artist, as a servant of art. Transcendental timelessness.

“I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art.”

Arsene Wenger

It is this enduring beauty that drives Arsene Wenger. In a most illuminating interview with L’Equipe Sport and Style, during the 20th year of his Arsenal career, the manager spoke about being a facilitator of what is beautiful in man, about his tribute to the gods that govern the beautiful game—”I have not created anything. I allow others to express what they have in them—” and how, though it [philosophy] maybe makes him naïve, it allows him to believe, gives him a reason. This belief, in his calling, in football’s higher purpose, also manifests in the trust he shows in his players; the protection, care and time he affords them to flourish; in the genuine concern for their well-being as players and people.

As an educator who strongly believes in his vision, sometimes stubbornly so, Wenger has remained faithful to the values important to him and tried to pass them on to those around him, even as, in the latter days of his time at Arsenal, he found himself left behind football’s next wave of development.

Growing up as I have, with an upbringing that emphasised humane values and the importance of sticking to your morals, it is perhaps no surprise that I gravitated to Arsenal at the peak of Wenger’s philosophy successfully put in practice. And if the daring, breathtakingly fluid football drew me in, its beauty, condensed and crystallised, it was the vision and the dream that cemented my loyalty to a north London club thousands of miles away from home.

Here, we return to Kandinsky and the motives of a spectator of art. Kandinsky believed that it was the communality, the shared harmony of thought and emotion between the art, the artist, and the consumer. I found this sense of synchronisation at Arsenal Football Club and it’s all thanks to one man who believes that sport becomes beautiful when “men unite their energies to express a common idea.” At Arsenal, Wenger and Dein sought to enhance this synergy at all levels, including in the staff at the club and Colney, with a warmth that’s rare in a competitive, top-level modern-day environment.

Wenger’s above quote continues with, “the unhappiness of man comes when he finds himself alone to fight against the problems he must face.” Ironically, that’s been the reality for much of the second-half of his time at the club, for one reason or another. I’ve never shied from criticising his decisions or his frustrating stubbornness, but I’ve always felt that he had earned our faith and patience in his difficult years, and, at the very least, our non-negotiable respect. The rising acrimonious sentiment from the “Wenger Out” brigade and the in-fighting within factions of Gooners haven’t made the past two years, in particular, the most enjoyable for anyone, but Wenger’s handled it like the gentleman he is; he’s not deserted his humanity or his dignity in the face of anything but – and, for me, the Emirates years are far from a dent in the legacy he leaves behind.

In the Arsenal museum, there’s a quote by Wenger about Herbert Chapman,

“Herbert Chapman stands out today as quite simply the greatest visionary the English game has ever seen. His innovative ideas and forward-thinking nature propelled the game into the modern era and the unprecedented success he brought to Arsenal Football Club will never be forgotten.”

Herbert Chapman’s obituary in the Times wondered whether there would be “disciples who will carry on his work of popularising football, making it attractive for the shilling-paying public.” The Frenchman wasn’t even a glimmer in his parents’ eyes in January 1934, but with a name like Arsene, maybe it was destiny. (Not that we knew what destiny was as kids who believed that the club was named after him.) Much of what Wenger and other modern managers have been able to accomplish is thanks to the ground-breaking genius of the man from Kiveton. That Arsene Wenger now surpasses him as the club’s greatest manager is quite fitting.

Epilogue

On April 20, 2018, I woke up at 5 am for no reason that I could tell. I had been reading late into the night and didn’t expect to wake up until much later. I almost rolled over and closed my eyes again, but for the sense that I should check my phone. Two minutes later, the news came in. I had been expecting it; part of me had been preparing for it long before there was ever any indication, all those years ago. But, after the season we’ve had, after the silent resignation that it was time, I hadn’t counted on breaking down so completely. I should have known that football’s never quite done surprising you with the amount of emotion it can evoke.

When in need of comfort or reassurance, everyone seeks different things. I seek stories. I seek familiar narratives made anew which allow me to face the reality in ways I cannot always fathom. I turn to literature and art, hoping that they have the words that I cannot seem to put into coherent thoughts; that in them I recognise a sliver of the emotions I’m feeling, an echo of understanding and resonance that amplifies my own.

For the better part of the last sixteen years, I’ve sought comfort in the simple act of 22 men chasing a ball around a field. But at a certain point in your life, you start to see the end of old stories, as often as the beginnings of new ones. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “in nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten…Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit.”

Wenger’s the last of the old guard and I don’t think we’ll see his ilk again. But for me, as well as so many others from my generation, his resignation is also the end of a personal era.

Arsene Wenger is the only Arsenal manager I’ve ever known.

How am I supposed to get used to football without him? How am I supposed to reconcile the lack of someone who has shaped more than just my footballing philosophy, even if I know it’s absolutely the right time?

Arsene Wenger will go down in history as a visionary who revolutionised the game in England despite initial mistrust and resistance. But for the 12-year-old girl from India mesmerised by the art and hope he was responsible for, he will always be the man who showed her just how much beauty is to be had, in life and in the game; who proved to her, over and over, that greatness can and does go hand-in-hand with class, integrity, and compassion; who gave her the world of football with all its faults and exasperations, its hopes and dreams. Who, even after giving his best years in service of Arsenal, urges fans to take care of the values of the club once he’s gone.

I will miss him. I will miss the cheeky grin, the dry wit, the illuminating insights, the optimism, and generosity. I will also miss his monumental struggles with the zipper of a puffy coat, and his ability to remain graceful even when he’s kicking a water bottle in frustration. Most of all, I’ll miss being happy for him—so unconditionally happy—after an Arsenal win, after the little celebratory Arsene jig on the touchline and a smile showing his unwavering commitment to a club that’s forever changed because of him.

The one thing missing in his, well, arsenal, is the success on the continent. The Champions League will remain an unfulfilled dream, but there’s still a chance for the lads to send him off with a European trophy, and I hope they do; I hope they fight for him and bring the trophy home. It’s the least he deserves.

Arigato, Arsene. It was a privilege.

identicon
Anushree Nande

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