Arsène Wenger: Arsenal was a matter of life and death to me
French great on scaling Everest, missing out on the European Cup and dealing with defeat
Arsène Wenger on his final match at the Emirates. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty
Arsène Wenger still believes he could milk a cow but, as he says with a smile: “I haven’t tried for a long time. I might have lost the technique a little bit.” Wenger is one of the most humane and original thinkers in football and so it is not surprising that, moving beyond his “obsession”, we should spend 100 minutes talking about much more than the game that consumes him.
Whether describing how he learned to milk cows as a boy in the Alsace village of Duttlenheim, or reliving his first memory as a five-year-old watching his local football team while clutching a prayer book, Wenger stresses his life has been built on the pillars of hard work and faith. “It’s amazing that you make your life with the values from childhood. I think all the champions I have met have been the same. They had the root of their motivations in childhood.”
Having recently lost both his sister and brother in the space of six months, Wenger admits that writing his absorbing autobiography became more sombre. “Maybe because you feel guilty as well,” he says at his home outside London.
Wenger, who managed Arsenal for 22 years, shrugs ruefully. “When you have a passion you are selfish because the people who suffer the most are those around you. Unconsciously you always give an excuse because you think: ‘I will see them in one month.’ When you move out [of football], you think it’s a bit frightening how selfish and one-directional you were.”
Twenty-four years ago, in October 1996, Wenger’s immersion in Arsenal began as he became the club’s unknown new manager. He was only the fourth foreign manager to have worked in the English top flight – and the first three had been unsuccessful. Of course Wenger, who went on to win three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups, had a seismic influence on English football. But it is often forgotten how he suffered soon after his arrival.
He writes that “the pure hostility, lies, vile allegations … started with a radio host, a Spurs supporter, so I have been told. I had apparently been spotted in disreputable locations, in preposterous situations.”
The baseless rumours intensified. Wenger was living alone in a London hotel as Annie, his future wife, had yet to join him. He recalls that, over breakfast, people looked at him suspiciously or turned away. “It was intolerable. I wondered whether the world had gone mad, how such lies could be written without any evidence or truth, just to smear a man. I was very angry.”
Wenger sounds sanguine now. “I was quite surprised by the violence of these allegations because I didn’t know where they came from and why. But then I thought: ‘Why am I doing this job? Let’s focus on that.’ I was 47-years-old and I knew who I was and what I wanted in life so it didn’t depress me too much. I had been in Monaco for seven years and in Japan two years before I arrived here. I knew that, in different countries, you sometimes face adversity.”
Did it shake his affection for England? “No. I love England, because it’s a country of passion, emotion, of sport and music, and it’s brave. But this is also a country where you have media competition and sometimes it’s out of control.”
The next day you have to put that into perspective but every defeat is still a scar on my heart
For Wenger the nadir occurred when Annie’s 12-year-old son was hounded by tabloid reporters. “That was not very fair, no,” he says quietly.
He held an impromptu press conference outside Highbury and the way he spoke was so convincing that the lies suddenly stopped. “But it left something in crowds that were vicious,” he recalls. Years later vitriolic supporters still resorted to chants calling him a paedophile.
Wenger “knitted myself a soul in red and white” as he showed an unbreakable loyalty to Arsenal. But, as happens so often with great managers, he lingers over the defeats. As a young manager at Nancy, Wenger was stricken by a loss just before the Christmas break. He was so desolate – “like a zombie” – he spent Christmas and the next three weeks alone.
He believes “that dark place” was “where I learnt patience, endurance and rigour”. But as he later tells me and an online audience at a Guardian Live Event: “I had problems in coping with defeat. I did throw up sometimes and it took me time to recover from a defeat. I wondered if I am made for this job because when you suffer so much physically you will not survive. But I had always a quick recovery. I am an optimist, basically. I thought: ‘Let’s go to the next one.’”
Was he ever physically sick after an Arsenal defeat? “I was more mentally sick. I made 1,235 games for Arsenal and didn’t miss one. I can’t remember when I stayed in bed to miss training in 22 years. But, after defeat, you never sleep. You have an internal film that goes through your mind. It’s a sense of anger, humiliation, hate. The next day you have to put that into perspective but every defeat is still a scar on my heart.”
In 2003-04, when his Invincibles did not lose a league match the whole season, he had “no fear of anything. Just go to a game and play – and you will win. I wanted to play the perfect season. Usually when you win the Premiership, two or three games later you suffer a loss. I told the players: ‘You can become immortal if you continue to focus.’ That’s what happened.”
The inevitable end to the record unbeaten run came in the fateful 50th match, in a controversial defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford. “You felt a sense of injustice because we did not deserve to lose this game,” Wenger says. “Rooney got a soft penalty and, in the first 20 minutes, Ljungberg was clear through and Rio Ferdinand should have been sent off. With VAR today he would have gone. What was bad is we climbed Everest and fell to earth again. Now you tell the players we have to climb up again. That’s difficult.”
Wenger was haunted most by the Champions League – and especially the 2006 final when, reduced early on to 10 men, they led 1-0 until the 79th minute when they conceded two late goals to Barcelona. “We had beaten Real Madrid with Ronaldo, Figo, Zidane and Raúl and we did not concede a goal in the whole knockout stage. We beat Juventus who had Vieira, Ibrahimovic, Trezeguet. It was hugely frustrating. We twice had chances to score the second goal and if we’d played with 11 against 11, we would definitely have won the European Cup.”
More happily, he has not forgotten the sweetest victories. “With a young team we won against Madrid with a fantastic goal from Thierry Henry, and when we won in Milan they were European champions. Their crowd stood up and applauded us. Those are moments where you play the game like you want it to be played – as when we won 5-1 at Inter [IN 2003]. But you remember the defeats more.”
Wenger suggests he achieved even more when he kept Arsenal in the Champions League every year after they left Highbury with a huge stadium debt. “Our wages could not exceed 50 per cent of the turnover so we had financial fair play imposed by our banks. Manchester City or Chelsea did not have to observe any financial fair play. We lost players to Barcelona, City and Chelsea but we were still only one of two teams who qualified 19 consecutive years for the Champions League. Overall, we were remarkably consistent and twice we could have won the Premier League but we lacked maturity.”
The end in May 2018, after years of discord and cries of Wenger out, was harsh. His hurt sounds raw: “The hostility of a section of the fans and the board was unjustified. I felt as if I’d built the training centre and the stadium myself brick by brick … it was very hard, very brutal. Arsenal was a matter of life and death to me, and without it there were some very lonely, very painful moments.”
Does it still feel like life and death? “Yes, it was my approach to the job. When you drive home after a defeat, and you think about the number of people who are destroyed, you have a sense of responsibility, of guilt. I believe there is no other way for a manager than to identify completely with the club, and to behave like he owns it.”
Wenger is too discreet to reveal who on the board was hostile to him but his exasperation is obvious: “What I turned down to stay at Arsenal. Real Madrid …”
Wenger has already confirmed he rejected managerial offers from PSG and even Manchester United. “Juventus too and France and England two or three times. I don’t complain about that. I guided the club through a very sensitive period and it’s now in a strong position.”
In laying off 55 staff during the current crisis Arsenal also shut down their scouting department which had done so much groundbreaking work for Wenger and Mikel Arteta’s squad. Their two marquee signings in the recent transfer window, Thomas Partey and Gabriel Magalhães, had been tracked by the chief scout Francis Cagigao for years. Does this change concern Wenger?
“Yes, because Cagigao did outstanding work. I was amazed but what is the real reason? Certainly it was not financial because we spent a lot of money after that. I don’t know if you put the wages together of these 55 people that you can buy a player with it.”
It often looked as if Stan Kroenke, Arsenal’s elusive American owner, allowed Wenger to absorb intense criticism while he remained in the shadows. Are Kroenke and his son, Josh, becoming more involved in the club? “Yes. But I defended everybody, took the criticism. Then, of course, when I left the criticism went more to them. They responded by being more proactive because in the last two years they invested a lot of money.”
If a striker is offside because he has his nose in front, that’s a bit ridiculous
What does he make of Mesut Özil’s situation? “For me, Özil not playing is a waste because he is top class. He went through some difficult periods and I don’t know what has happened between him and Arteta. Özil is professional. I heard he trains well. He has to keep going because he has the quality to help our club win important games.”
It has been too painful for Wenger to return to Arsenal. But, beyond the Covid-19 crisis, is he any closer to going back to the Emirates Stadium as a spectator? “I can go back but I have no real connection any more with the club. So I really don’t know. But I support the club and watch the games. I suffer when we don’t win and I’m happy when we win.”
Wenger sounds relaxed. Apart from his work at Fifa, where he was appointed as head of global development last year, he still plays football and has moved from his old position in midfield to central defence. “I play charity games every few months. My next game is in November. At my age it takes time to recover. But I usually have Laurent Blanc on my left and Christian Karembeu on my right. So I get away with it.”
Do they win most matches? Wenger smiles. “We only win.”
After our interview, and while we wait for the live event to start, Wenger says that two Sundays ago he saw a quartet of matches as Arsenal’s defeat of Sheffield United was followed by the surprise of West Ham beating Leicester 3-0, Manchester United being hammered 6-1 by Spurs and Liverpool shipping seven goals against Villa. “I watched them all,” he says while admitting that, apart from the missing crowds, he has no explanation for the strange results.
Wenger is more emphatic about VAR. “I am 100 per cent in favour because I conceded goals when the goalscorer was five metres offside. People forget that. In the Premier League, the right decisions went from 84 per cent to 95 per cent last year with VAR, 11 per cent. That is 10,000 decisions because referees make about 100,000 decisions a season. It’s not perfect. If a striker is offside because he has his nose in front, that’s a bit ridiculous.”
He is just as engaged when he and I talk online before he takes questions from the audience. Matthew Greenfield asks: “Arsène, being such a wise man, do you feel your skills were wasted on football? Could you have been a politician?”
Wenger laughs. “I don’t think so. I don’t feel especially wise. I was just passionate and I tried to master my passion. My demons were inside me and how I behaved was not necessarily how I felt inside. I was made for competition. But I would say football has a responsibility in the world today. The time when we think football and politics are two separate departments is over.”
Before reading Paul Newsom’s question I explain to the audience that Wenger never liked broccoli – despite the cliche that he force-fed it to his players. “Is there any British cuisine that you became particularly fond of while living here?” Newsom asks before offering suggestions of curry sauce and chips, Yorkshire pudding and Quavers.
“I was never a fan of broccoli,” Wenger exclaims, “but I love Yorkshire pudding. The quality of food in England has improved in the last 10 years tremendously.”
The small boy who once milked cows and carried a prayer book to football matches is 70-years-old now. He listens carefully to an anonymous question. “How did you cope emotionally after leaving Arsenal? And what advice would you give to someone having upheaval in his or her life?”
Wenger looks up and says, as thoughtful as ever: “Well, I tried always to structure my day, to keep disciplined and in touch with people, to try to improve my knowledge of the game, to understand society. I tried to become a better person. I had the frustration I could not get my football drug. So that was difficult. But, you know, time is a good doctor. It heals the pain.” - Guardian