The former player and French Football Manager, Arsené Wenger, was a peculiar in today’s fast-paced world of sports, where patience is unusual. However the question still remains, is being a sentimental a bad thing in today’s multi-billion dollar sports world?
The coach of England’s Arsenal Football Club Arsené Wenger had become so synonymous with the club, and not just because of the similarities of their names, that he had become Mr Arsenal. Over a two decade long career, he delivered a lot of silverware to the club, nurtured the careers of tens of players including greats like Thierry Henry as well as coaching other greats like Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp. He coached the team to what will always be known as one of the greatest seasons in domestic league history when his ‘Invincibles’ remained unbeaten the entire 38 games of the season. This was a team that included greats like Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira, Sol Campbell, Freddy Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Jens Lehmann and the list goes on. No other team has managed such a feat in modern football history in a large footballing nation, few other teams have come close to such a feat in any sport, although some teams in US sports have come close.
The greatest prize in European Club Football, the UEFA Champions League always eluded him, despite Arsenal having a fair crack at Barcelona in the 2006 finals, however that to many Arsenal fans including your columnist, colloquially calling themselves ‘Gunners’ or ‘Gooners’ after the cannon on the Arsenal club crest was the high-water mark for the club.
Almost a decade passed before the club was to lift any other silverware when they won the Football Association Cup, an English football knockout competition three times in four years from 2014 onwards. This was a horribly lean spell, and while many fans of the club were incredibly patient, believing in ‘Arsené’s Way’ which could be described as developing young talent and nuturing them, with the advent of global superclubs fuelled by Russian oligarchs such as Chelsea, petro-dollars such as Manchester City and Paris St.Germain and the complete corruption of the banking and television rights system as in Spain where a comfortable duopoly exists between Barcelona and Real Madrid, Arsenal found itself in a strange place. Primarily because the man who came from once-contested region of Alsace-Lorraine on the Franco-German border was a committed socialist in a decidedly capitalist age.
Arsenal Football Club built one of the most modern stadia in the world for their fans at Ashburton Grove near Islington in North London. The Stadium which came to be known as ‘The Emirates’ after the Dubai based airline became the title sponsor of the stadium and the club was one of the most expensive modern stadiums built. And despite Arsenal having a lot of rich suitors willing and able to buy the club, Wenger ensured that the club financed the stadium by themselves and kept on serving their debt. This extremely ethical way of doing business and not chasing after quick and easy because its provenance is unheard of in today’s greedy time where everyone is there just to make a fast buck or to con others, Wenger was determined that the club will not lose its soul in a Faustian deal.
That was an honourable thought but leads to the obvious question? Is this a time for honour and good men when even thieves don’t have any honour left. Because to fund the stadium, Arsenal did not just start milking their own supporters by having some of the most expensive tickets of any football club in the world, although being in one of the wealthiest catchment areas in the world helped, they also invested less and less on players.
Indeed, this lower level of investment in talent led to some of the existing talent to leave. Some of them were sold to gain a profit on them and others like Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole, Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabergas and even more recently Alexis Sanchez left the club because they (rightly) wanted to win trophies and Arsenal was not competing for the Premier League and frankly in an era of clubs bankrolled by immense amounts of money, Arsenal found themselves unable to compete.
Even though majority ownership of the club moved to American sports businessman Stan Kroenke, someone personally vetted by Wenger, it found itself moving down the English Premier League table with Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs rising again with fresh investments in players, stadiums and managers.
This was not necessarily Arsené Wenger’s fault, he dedication and hard work and investment in players such as Mesut Özil ensured that the club never left the top half of the league, an unprecedented level of success. Yet, clubs like manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City have been dominating the Premier League and Arsenal find themselves at the bottom of the high table among the big clubs.
Wenger’s style which was revolutionary when he arrived at London from Nagoya Grampus 8 in Japan where he introduced the modern techniques of personalised exercise and diet routines which are now standard not just in football but even in sports like cricket. And his style of play that took the tough and burly English style to a more evolved level and he inspired future coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp as well as his peers like Sir Alex Ferguson had now started to evolve too fast for him. One could argue that Wenger, the one-time revolutionary, had become a conservative with age. Which, oddly enough is a typical human property.
And the last few years even if they have seen three FA Cups have been painful to watch for many Arsenal fans. Some, who backed Wenger through some of the dark days found their support waning every passing weekend, particularly after consistently inconsistent performances. And while Wenger had complained that the atmosphere among the clubs fans was one reason he left, the fact is that a long period without success, rather a long period without the promise of any potential future success on the horizon was becoming very hard for the fans to bear. That is why the constant shouts of #WengerOut on social media platforms, something that did not exist when Wenger started out at Arsenal.
For better or for worse, we do live in an age of instant gratification and Arsenal fans were sick and tired of seeing the smug faces of rival fans, particularly those of arch-rivals Tottenham who have some of the greatest English players in their squad now. Even Liverpool, who are likely to make the Champions League finals were rising while Arsenal’s current trajectory was decidedly downwards. Even if Wenger couldn’t see the writing on the wall, every Arsenal fan could.
Yes, Arsené Wenger revolutionised English and world football, and his name will go down in history as one of the great modern managers, and any Arsenal fan does feel sad that he has decided to step down at the end of the season. It hurts, but frankly it was time. Yes, the possibility exists that Arsenal might endure a couple of seasons of managerial musical chairs like manchester United did after Sir Alex Ferguson quit, but some of Wenger’s old wards are doing very well in the managerial game right now such as Patrick Vieira in New York. Wenger’s legacy will be a great club and a fabulous stadium, it is now time for it to be taken to new heights. As should happen in any sports team.
(The writer is Managing Editor, The Pioneer)
Writer: Kushan Mitra
Courtesy: The Pioneer