The word “passion” has become a bit of a joke. It’s the kind of superficial thing you throw into a job application to be a shelf stacker at ASDA. Its watered-down nature is at odds with the core of its meaning, opposing the fundamental joy of possessing a passion. To unlock that meaning is to use your passion as the sole driving force for your existence.
Arsene Wenger’s My Life In Red And White is a documentation of what it means to have a true passion, to really embody that word and live by the thing that you love. The stories are a clear display that passion and obsession are one and the same. Wenger shows us what a beautiful thing it is to have love for football, and what a haunting thing it is to be obsessed. Whether manifesting itself in painful isolation or as a strained relationship with a loved one, the prices Arsene had to pay to live completely for football followed him like a curse.
“I know exactly what I owe her, I know what she had to deal with, and I know that living with a man who was mad about his profession, who made football his religion, was not easy.” –Arsene Wenger,My Life In Red And White
Wenger was well aware of the detrimental effects that football had on his personal life and mental health during those years as a manager. He describes the emptiness he would feel after every defeat, saying he was unable to see the beauty in the Monaco skyline if results failed to go his way. As fans, we see that as a man determined to win, but we should hesitate to celebrate an image of a man who put his mental health on the backburner for football. However, to Arsene, this seemed to be the only way to live, the only way to get the most of himself as a manager, the only way to win.
Arsene’s plight is akin to that of an artist who has to choose between immersing themselves in their work to create the art that they see as pure, and therefore straining relationships and possibly their bank account, or watering down their product for mass consumption. This rings true if you look at managers as conductors of a band. The type of music they produce all comes from their vision. Each pattern of play is a brush stroke which contributes to the wider picture of the team’s identity. Wenger’s art was famous for being subtle and delicate like an orchestra–it was gorgeous.
For long parts of his career, Arsene was able to suck up the cost of his immersion thanks to the continual success he received on the pitch, with his reputation for playing beautiful football and for changing the face of the English game. Those titles acted as validation for the way he lived, validation for not seeing London, validation for never going to the cinema, validation for spending all of his time locked away in isolation watching tapes of matches. Arsene understood that successful obsession requires sacrifice, but he was not prepared for what happened when the success stopped.
Arsene went almost a decade without winning a trophy, but not once did he waver from his philosophy. The pressure from fans added to the list of people he was unable to please, the list of people he had to tune out for the sake of his art. His teams continued to play some gorgeous football; players like Cesc Fabregas and Thomas Rosicky had the talent to fulfil Arsene’s vision of an intricate, smooth style. Yet, despite its aesthetic effervescence, Wenger’s teams between 2007 and 2014 lacked substance and fell at the feet of more experienced and cynical sides.
“All art contains an element of pain and requires a taste for effort”–Arsene Wenger, My Life In Red And White
The noise from all angles reached a boiling point in 2015 when Arsenal’s reputation for being beautiful was preceded with a reputation for being brittle. Arsene had continually led his team to heavy away defeats against key rivals which cost them a place in the title race. It was during a game away at Manchester City where Wenger embodied the philosophy of many creatives in the film industry – “one for them, one for me.”
Filmmakers will often help create a big studio blockbuster before immediately working on a smaller indie film. This is the way that many filmmakers balance the need to financially support themselves and their families while also leaving room to immerse themselves in the art they really want to create. Against Manchester City in 2015, Arsene Wenger had to sacrifice his typical free-flowing, attacking game for a dogged, defensive performance in order to win support from the fanbase. Arsenal won 2-0.
My Life In Red And White could have been a book about successes. Arsene has so many of them to pick apart and to relive, but a sadness hangs over every chapter. Any expression of joy is immediately met with what that joy cost him. Arsene wants us to know what passion is really like, he wants us to understand the things he had to sacrifice to be the man we all admire. He could have simply talked about how much he loved every win, but to not dwell on the losses would have been inauthentic.
One anecdote that stands out is of him missing Christmas celebrations with his family in order to scout a player. One could see this as selfish and heartless; most of us would never dare pass up an opportunity to spend time with our loved ones. But Arsene understood his curse. He knew what he wanted to live for. He knew he wanted to dedicate himself to winning football matches and nothing more. He was a man who would give up everything to see his team execute a one-touch attacking move resulting in a goal. When your heart is full, when the world looks different as you truly live by your passion, it can become easy to ignore your shortcomings in other areas of your life. Living for football cost Arsene. Success kept his wounds hidden; only when it disintegrated could he see that he was covered in bruises. But this is Arsene Wenger–he could never have lived any other way.