In an age where managers move constantly, Arsene Wenger is proud that he “always treated Arsenal as if it belonged to him.” His inevitable departure will hurt everyone, especially Wenger himself.
It is believed that if you have a passion, a real passion, something that calls to the deepest parts of your soul, that you should move heaven and earth to chase it. In sport, this ambition is pervasive and necessary. Stars are often shouted down for simply having other interests outside of their sporting life, for not sacrificing every single waking minute — and sleep — for their singular purpose. They’re lucky enough to summit to an enviable position, so it is only right to devote the entirety of life to remaining there.
Arsene Wenger, in an interview with L’Equipe, revealed that he has done just that. Since the age of four, he has been involved in football in some capacity. He has talked, lived, played, directed and managed. Every moment of his life has had some relation to the sport. He was so engrossed with the game that sometime between his 24th and 25th year, on the cusp of realising that he would never become the great player that he once dreamed he would, he contemplated suicide.
“I was thinking: what is the point of life after it?”
It is a weighty question, one that Wenger still struggles to answer. At that stage in his life, Wenger decided to progress into a different capacity, giving up his boots for suits. He abandoned the field for the office and later the touchline. Now, in his final years as manager of Arsenal, the original inquiry has taken on an immediacy to the 66-year-old Wenger. The harrowing truth is that what he described as a “small death” is just right around the corner.
No longer burdened with the naiveté and dramatic nature of youth, Wenger has shifted on to full-on denial when questioned about his impending retirement. “I completely ignore that question. I’m kind of like the 34-year-old guy who’s still playing. He has a bad game and everybody says, ‘Time to hang them up mate!’ I don’t even ask myself the question of what I will do after because it will be a big shock. Much harder than switching from player to coach. Because this time, it will be about switching from hyperactivity to emptiness. That’s why I refuse to consider that question. I’m like a guy who’s not far from his goal, who keeps going and ignores the wall.”
It’s why he envies Sir Alex Ferguson, the only other manager who managed one team in English football for as long as Wenger has. Fergie had other interests — he loves wine and horses; he writes books. And so he has moved on from the footballing life and doesn’t miss it. Wenger who has nothing else but the sport, fears that he can’t walk away from it.
That fear is not unique. Ferguson managed a Frenchman who shared Wenger’s panic some time ago. Eric Cantona, part majestic footballer, part philosopher, expressed that same anxiety when he left football at the age of 30: “If you have only one passion in life, football, and you pursue it to the exclusion of everything else, it becomes very dangerous. When you stop doing this activity it is as though you are dying. The death of that activity is a death in itself.”
Thus there’s a sympathy evoked by Wenger’s wilful blindness to this future. The result of passion pursued above everything else is the limbo that occurs after the chase has ended. The individual outlasts his own ability to pursue his passion, leaving a shell who has to continue to live on when their life’s purpose is gone. It is no surprise that retired footballers suffer a higher rate of mental disorders than their active counterparts.
Unlike Wenger, though, fans must confront this coming end. Wenger has managed Arsenal for almost 20 years, and in that time, he has been the only manager of the club that millions of football fans know. Those that knew others have never seen a more successful manager, nor another who has survived and built such a legacy. He is synonymous with the club.
This is the agonizing prospect. As he puts it, “I give myself credit for one thing: I always treated Arsenal as if it belonged to me.” That megalomaniacal operating philosophy is at odds with the principle of team sports, and will likely depart from Arsenal with Wenger. But it is also how he built the team into a success.
In the demanding world of professional sports, the employees are, by nature, dispensable. Old, expensive and damaged workers are replaced by newer and cheaper models. Make profit, win trophies and repeat. Wenger, forever the fool, created an ideal, a family, to which he’s clung tightly. From Abou Diaby to Jack Wilshere, the examples of Wenger standing by players who otherwise would have been discarded are plenty. They are each an act of bravery, which shouldn’t exist in a result and profit-driven business like world football.
Wenger’s approach provided for the club’s stability. It was his meticulous nature that made it possible for the club to take on the debt of a new stadium with him at the helm. And it’s his genius that made Champions League football possible in all of those years, though it is also his folly for the trophy-less seasons that could have been avoided.
No one is bigger than the club, but Wenger is nearly so. The idea of Arsenal — the economic assuredness, Wengerball, clean diets and even the myth of “classiness” — are all linked to him, and so the club is an manifestation of his philosophies. Arsenal, in that view, does belong to Wenger.
It is a privilege, of course, to be able to infuse one’s self into an institution so extensively. The usual lifetime of a manager is short, each bad result another indication for the executioner to sharpen his axe. You can see the jealousy and frustration over having short rein when Jose Mourinho speaks of Wenger not suffering any consequences for his bad years. Few are even given the chance to build in the manner that Wenger has. Not everyone should be.
After Ferguson, Manchester United have gone through two contrasting managers in David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal, with varying results. Their transition hasn’t been easy and the mystique of the club is changed. It’s no longer Sir Alex’s United, feared in England and Europe, the team that never dies and can nick a game with the last kick of regulation. It’s just Manchester United. There’s a new vulnerability and nakedness that comes after a guiding presence is lost.
So the fear of the after is justified, and as Wenger says, “The only possible moment of happiness is the present. The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties.” In spite of human nature he tries to ignore it, but the imminent end draws ever closer. Arsene Wenger will have to face a prospective emptiness, and soon after, fans of Arsenal and the footballing world will have to endure their own as well.- sbnation.com
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