Merci Monsieur Wenger, A True Believer

Finally, in the 35th year of his managerial career, Arsene Wenger broke a contract. It was always a great source of personal pride that he had always previously honoured them, even though – as he rarely failed to mention – during the peak years, there had been plenty of offers. And so in one small and irrevocable act, the Wenger era at Arsenal came to a shuddering halt. He could refuse Madrid and Manchester United, the lure of England and the riches of the Gulf. But he couldn’t refuse time.

The question of what Wenger does now is shrouded in uncertainty, and not a little trepidation. This is, after all, a man with few material interests beyond football: no horses or wine collection, no burgeoning property empire or hotel/bar sideline. All he had, he gave to Arsenal. And given that he was occasionally disposed to equating retirement with death, one assumes he will continue to graft, somehow, in some capacity.

But perhaps, when the curtain finally comes down on his 22 years, he will grant the one luxury he has never before afforded himself: a backward glance.

For Wenger the manager, the past held only ghosts and guilt, anxieties and distractions, resentments and irrelevances. Maybe when he finally takes stock, he will also see the glories and triumphs, the art and the science, the hairs raised and the trophies lifted (even if he rarely, if ever, bothered to keep his medals).

For Wenger the man, English football was his natural home. It was a logical progression from the impetuous, brooding young coach that French football got to know in the 1980s, through the sage and respectful sensei of Japanese football in the 1990s. English football gave him the emotional tools to explore the full extent of his talents. “It’s the country of the heart,” he said in a 2015 interview. “It is not afraid of emotion. We [the French] pollute our emotions because of our Cartesian spirit. We don’t know how to love without limits. The English know how to lose themselves in emotions.”

And so, in a league without fetters, Wenger would play football without compromise. In a game transfixed by dominant personalities, Wenger would become one of the most dominant of them all. In a nation in thrall to Blairism, Wenger would be intensely relaxed about making his players obscenely rich as long as they remembered their responsibilities. Ever the innkeeper’s son, ever the economics graduate, he trusted innately in the virtue of the market, and in his own intrinsic worth.

Perhaps this is what cost him so dearly in the end, as the wealth, first of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, and later Abu Dhabi and Qatar, began to warp the concrete certainties that Wenger had taken as an article of faith. For too long Wenger abided by the traditional rules of the market – balancing the books, avoiding debt, investing in infrastructure – when all the impulses of football were charging in the opposite direction.

For too long he trusted in the sanctity of the game, which is why he was so grievously afflicted by the dereliction of Financial Fair Play, the rise of the footballer-as-brand, the shadowy spectres of doping and match-fixing, which he always suspected were more prevalent than people were prepared to admit. In the end, Wenger was undone by his simple optimism. We should all reflect on what that says about our beloved sport.

And yet these are the same reasons why, you suspect, history will remember Wenger kindly. Not so much for the silverware or the sports science, the Invincibles or the Insufferables, the pasta or the press conference quips, the built-in excuses or the big coat, but that simple optimism. Above all, what Wenger recognised was that football could be more. More than a job. More than a game. More than numbers on a scoreboard, more than a simple ledger of who won and who lost, league tables and net spends. Wenger believed that in the right hands, football could be art. Football could be beauty. Football could be religion and football could be celebration. Football could build you a house and give you a family. Football was honesty and humility and a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

And more than that: unless football was all these things, it was nothing at all. Football was worthless unless it touched all the emotions: joy, sadness, longing, despair, boredom, faith, hope and love.

“My love and support for ever,” Wenger wrote in his closing remarks, and of the 105 immaculately efficient words in his statement, these were by far the most devastating.

Football will carry on without Arsene Wenger. Wenger may even, just about, carry on without football. But already the game feels somehow a little colder, a little less pure, a little less loving, than it did yesterday. And let that be his legacy. The game has lost not just a great mind, but a true believer.