Why France adores Arsene Wenger
Published 19/10/2011 | 12:10
To become prophet in your own land is said to be impossible, like Sol Campbell receiving an invitation to a Spurs supporters' club dinner.
The Premier League's resident professeur du football is an exception to this rule (and many others). Over the last 15 years, Arsène Charles Ernest Wenger has achieved the status of football prophet in his own land.
He has been revered in France as the country's most successful ever coaching export. He has been credited with providing, or honing, a series of stars for the France team, from Vieira to Petit to Anelka to Henry to Nasri to Sagna.
Just as importantly, Arsène Wenger has talked a beautiful game in sonorous, eloquent French, with only a trace of an Alsatian accent. In his frequent appearances as a summariser of international matches on French TV, Wenger delivers the blend of existential abstraction and precise science that French people adore.
One of his best remembered TV sayings is: "On ne peut exister que par le jeu." This means roughly: "The right way to play the game is to play the game." But it sounds better in French.
Arsenal confront Marseilles in the Champions League tonight. This is Wenger's first cross-Channel venture as manager since his seemingly unassailable position at the Emirates Stadium began to be called into question.
What do the French now make of Wenger's six trophyless years and his team's worst-ever start to a top-flight season in England? Arsenal's 8-2 defeat at Manchester United in August was greeted in L'Equipe as a kind of "Berezina", Napoleon's catastrophic rearguard battle against the Russians in 1812. In other words, this was not yet Wenger's Waterloo but...
Some of Wenger's fellow French coaches rushed to kick the ball off his goal-line. Guy Roux, the now retired, former manager of Auxerre and the man who discovered Eric Cantona, said: "When you spend so long with one club, you are bound to take a severe battering some time. His record is brilliant. People should remember that he has overseen the construction of a 60,000-seater stadium while keeping his team at the highest level."
In a mostly admiring recent profile, the newspaper Le Monde described Wenger as "an ascetic and tormented character from Goya's fresco, the Miracle of Saint Anthony". In other words, he was a man prepared to give away everything (even lots of goals) rather than compromise on his principles.
Other French voices suggest that Wenger has fallen in love with his own prudent, purist image. Instead of keeping Arsenal at the highest level, he wants to be seen as the man who stands alone against the corrupting tide of roubles and petro-dollars in the Premier League.
Xavier Rivoire of France Football magazine, author of a much-praised biography of Wenger in 2008, told Talksport radio: "[Wenger] is now the reason that Arsenal can't go further. He has to go."
Wenger's success, and the strong Gallic flavour of successive Arsenal teams since 1997, have made the Gunners one of the best-supported Premier League clubs in France. Manchester United and Liverpool also have large, well-organised followings (Chelsea, surprisingly, less so).
So what do the cross-Channel Gooners make of the tribulations of their fellow countryman? Eduoard Chable, 22, of the unofficial club "Les Gunners de France" told The Independent: "To the great majority of French Arsenal fans, the club without Wenger is inconceivable. You do have the same split in fans as you do in Britain. There are some who say that Wenger has become too obsessed with money, with managing the club, rather than rebuilding the team.
"But I think that view is much less common here than in Britain. Almost all French fans are still unconditionally pro-Wenger. We believe that he will be proved right in the end."
Vincent Arfeux, 25, chairman of the official Arsenal supporters' club in France, said: "Most Arsenal fans in France are young. They don't remember a pre-Wenger Arsenal. You do hear criticism from the older fans, who remember the George Graham era when, according to them, we never let in a goal.
"But the vast majority of younger fans are proud of the fact that Wenger insists that Arsenal play beautiful football. We accept that the external fortunes poured into Manchester City and Chelsea make it impossible for Wenger to compete for the highest-priced players.
"All the same, I would say that I am only 98 per cent pro-Wenger. I don't say 100 per cent because he did leave the strengthening of the team very late this year."
When a little-known French manager was appointed by Arsenal in 1996, the Evening Standard famously headlined its story "Arsène Who?" The French public might have asked the same question: "Arsène Qui?" His reputation in France has been almost entirely built on his work at Highbury and the Emirates Stadium in the last 15 years.
Wenger was never a great player; in fact he was scarcely a player at the top level at all. He started with his village team in Duttlenheim in Alsace, where his parents ran a restaurant. He rose slowly through the amateur and lower leagues, as goalkeeper, central defender and midfielder, before he reached the French first division with Racing Cub de Strasbourg at the age of 29. He played 12 first-team matches for Racing in three years before retiring to concentrate on coaching.
At the same time, he studied for an engineering degree and a doctorate in economics.
Wenger became manager of Monaco in 1987, won the French championship in his first season and the Coupe in 1991. He was fired in 1994 when his results slumped. The former Arsenal chairman, David Dein, who had met Wenger at European matches in the late 1980s, hired him 15 years ago this month from football exile in Japan.
Success in Britain has not brought Wenger universal acclaim in France. The Uefa president, Michel Platini, famously dislikes the Arsenal manager, but then Platini seems to dislike everything about British football. In 2009, Platini suggested that Wenger's criticism of Uefa management of the European competitions was rooted in selfishness and vanity: "C'est tout pour ma gueule, c'est TPMG, Arsène !" he said. (This is a very rude French phrase that means "Looking out for number one".)
French club presidents have sometimes complained about Wenger's habit of spiriting away players from their academies and his hard-ball tactics in the transfer market.
"He cultivates this image of the wise man of football but he is less polished in reality," said Jean-Louis Triaud, president of Bordeaux. "When it comes to transfers, he always wants to be cleverer, slyer, than you are."
Frédéric Paquet, deputy chief executive of Lille, was furious when Wenger snatched away the South Korean Chu-young Park just as he was about to sign a new contract this summer. "He had the right to do it but it wasn't very classy for someone who likes to give lessons in morality to the rest of the world," he said.
It will be interesting to see how Wenger is received by the boisterous, aggressive crowd at Stade Vélodrome tonight (actually a mosaic of different crowds of rival supporters' clubs).
Vincent Arfeux, official chief Gooner in France, who will be going to the match, believes that Wenger will receive a respectful welcome. "All French football fans are proud of what he has achieved," he said.
Maybe. There is unfinished business between Wenger and Marseilles.
The last time that he took a team to the Vélodrome was when he was manager of Monaco in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Monaco were among the principal challengers in that period to a Marseilles team which won a string of French titles. In 1993 Marseilles were stripped of that year's title – and their chairman, Bernard Tapie, was eventually jailed – for fixing matches.
Wenger has since hinted that he believed that players in his own Monaco team were paid by Marseilles to throw games in previous seasons. Emmanuel Petit, a midfielder at Monaco at that time, quotes Wenger saying as much in a book published in 2008. The subject is also explored by the Italian football writer, Gabriel Marcotti, in his book, The Game. He points out that, if Monaco had won the titles allegedly "bought" by Marseilles, Wenger's career might have taken a different course.
He would almost certainly have gone to one of the big Italian clubs – not to Japan. And, as such, he might never have become the most successful manager in the history of Arsenal.