Wenger after being sent to the stands against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2009 (Image Credit: Getty Images)

Adieu, Mr. Wenger

A look back on my relationship with Arsenal Football Club

I moved to London from Calcutta in June 1998, a few days shy of my 8th birthday. My father had started working for the BBC, having himself moved three months earlier, and my mother and I followed suit shortly after. Of course, at that age I had very little idea of where I was moving to, aside from that it was the capital of the empire that had colonised my ancestors, and that someone named Diana had died in a car crash the year before. Being Indian, I was of course an avid fan of cricket as a child, but prior to my move to London, I had been hearing rumours of this football thing which was apparently even more popular in England. How could that be? Wasn’t England the birthplace of cricket? Just two days after I landed at Heathrow, the football World Cup was set to begin in France, and unlike in cricket, the Indian national team has never ranked above 94th in the world, and never participated in it. Therefore, it’s customary among football fans in India to pick one of the favourites (usually Brazil or Argentina) whenever there is a major tournament. Almost-8-year-old me also picked Brazil as they advanced with relative ease through the group and knockout stages, only to be defeated 3–0 by hosts France, in what was the beginning of their golden generation. It was only after the tournament had ended that I realised that international football wasn’t even its most popular format — club football was.

OK, so which clubs were big in England? My dad told me Manchester United and Arsenal. There was something ugly about the name “Manchester United” somehow. “Arsenal” was much cleaner, as were the white-sleeved red kits, and the cannon on the crest. Our first flat was also in Wood Green, just a few stops up the Piccadilly Line from Arsenal station, the club was managed by a man named Arsène, and my name is Aarjan. It just made sense. Plus, they had just won the domestic league and cup double the season before, so there was also that. That man, Arsène Wenger, then at the end of his first full season in charge of Arsenal, has announced his departure after almost 22 years, and right now I am filled with mixed emotions.

Throughout my 20 years as an Arsenal supporter, I have often grappled with deep existential questions as to why I even bother. Anyone who is even remotely politically conscious or believes in anti-capitalist principles is surely appalled by even a passing glance at the world of contemporary football. Not only is corruption rampant, as are sentiments of racism and homophobia in many facets of fan culture, but the sheer scale of the money involved is enough to make anyone’s eyes water. Brazilian superstar Neymar’s hugely public move from Spanish giants Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, a recent acquisition of the Qatari royal family, in the summer of 2017, is in many ways the ultimate showcase of everything wrong with the football market nowadays. UEFA, Europe’s football governing body, has tried implementing laws to prevent financial doping by restricting clubs to be allowed to only spend within their actual revenue, rather than outside resources. If PSG were to activate Neymar’s initial release clause of €222m, it would be in violation of these laws, and so Neymar was made the official ambassador for the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar for an amount in the region of €500m, with which he paid off his Barcelona contract, and went as a free agent, effectively pissing all over the Financial Fair Play regulations. At PSG, he is earning €707,692 a week, making him one of the top paid athletes in the world. What you would need nearly three decades to earn on a starting salary, he earns in a week. And that’s without even mentioning the source of the Qatari money and the working conditions of the workers building the stadiums for the world cup. Similarly, English Premier League clubs, who spent a combined €419m in the January 2018 transfer window alone, mostly don’t pay their staff a living wage.

However, even as a man of science who holds superstition under constant scrutiny, the only way I can describe what can happen on a football pitch is magic. There is always a great deal of underlying cognitive dissonance at work here, which makes me turn a blind eye to the obvious and absurd excesses of the modern game and be in an instant turned back into the 7-year-old who first discovered his love for football. When Danny Welbeck scored that winner against Leicester with the last touch of the game, when Thierry Henry scored against Leeds on his return in 2012, when Arshavin scored the winning goal against 2011 Barcelona, there is no rational framework that can explain the pure ecstatic joyful sensation in those moments. In a sense the corruption of contemporary football is no different to the corruption of the structures of capitalism that it inhabits, but within it is always nestled something innocent, pure and magical. And perhaps that is the real reason why Arsène Wenger still to this day stands out as one of the last true purveyors of ideals and purity in this corrupted world. Which is also why I’ve never had it in me to fully turn my back on him as many fans have done in recent years, even though his time probably had come a while ago.

Wenger and his great rival Sir Alex Ferguson (Image credit: Sky Sports)

There is no doubt as to the change in fortunes of the first half of Wenger’s tenure as manager compared with the second. As a pre-teen and in my early teenage years, I watched one of the finest teams assembled in English football, with a distinctly French core, locking horns with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, going toe-to-toe for the title every season. Most famously, in the 2003/04 season, Arsenal won the season unbeaten, a feat which has never before or since been achieved in the modern English game. Ever since the 2006 move to the spaceship-like 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium, a project behind which Wenger was also centrally involved, Arsenal have largely been also-rans, who always finished near the top of the table, but with the exception of one or maybe two seasons, made no real challenge for the league title. Considering the self-imposed financial austerity brought about by the stadium move, at a time when, thanks to the new owners of Chelsea and Manchester City, the football market was inflating at an unthinkable pace, it was certainly no mean feat of Wenger’s to finish in the top 4 for 20 consecutive seasons, something which no other club in England managed during that time. However, for some of us who were brought up spoiled on Wenger’s early success, achieved through no shortage of style and panache, the 9 trophyless years between 2005 and 2014 were simply not deemed good enough for a club of Arsenal’s stature. The bitterness and toxicity around the club began to grow, and the infamous “Wenger Out” banners and slogans began to permeate through the fanbase as the years ticked on.

In the summer of 2013, on transfer deadline day, Arsenal surprised the footballing world by breaking their previous transfer record nearly twofold to sign German star Mesut Özil from Real Madrid. There was a feeling among the fans that our period of austerity was over. That finally we would be able to compete with the big boys once again. The trophy drought was also finally ended that season with a dramatic 3–2 win over Hull City in the FA Cup final in May 2014. And that optimism carried through as we signed Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona that summer, one of the standout players of the world cup that year. However, despite the big-money moves in recent years, Arsenal’s league position has only worsened, finishing outside the top 4 for the first time in Wenger’s career last season, and almost certain to do so again this year. In the mean time some of Europe’s top managers have moved to Arsenal’s rivals, further modernising the game, while Arsenal’s tactics and general approach stagnated. To make matters worse, even arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur, ever the underachievers, have recently overtaken Arsenal in the league for the first time in Wenger’s career. There have been a lot of these firsts for Arsenal and Wenger in the last two years, seldom ever positively.

A ‘Wenger Out’ banner makes an appearance at an anti-Mugabe rally in Zimbabwe (Image credit: Getty Images)

Before this backdrop, the calls for Wenger’s sacking have grown louder among fans, with banners, protests, and most recently, with empty seats. The last couple of months have seen the Emirates Stadium at barely half capacity for home games. The mainstream media have also not helped matters, with their constant berating of Wenger’s outdated tactics and management style. This is despite 3 FA Cup titles in 4 years, something other clubs who are far more highly praised have come nowhere near to achieving. And in the midst of this, Wenger’s handling of criticism, some of which has verged on, and crossed the line to, abuse, has been nothing short of graceful. With a twinkle in his eyes, and his lips subtly curled at the corners into a knowing smirk, Wenger’s presence in front of a hostile media atmosphere has been witty and charming as ever, even in recent months, as the mood has turned increasingly sour. However, ever since announcing his departure, there has also been a quiver in his voice. The choice, it would seem, was mostly not down to him.

My office is located next to Holloway Road station, less than five minutes walk from Emirates Stadium. As I went in to work on Sunday, a beautiful sunny May morning, I saw more Arsenal shirts than I had been seeing recently. For his penultimate home game, the stadium was full, and we beat West ham 4–1. Of course, now that he has said he is leaving, you all decide to come back. Suddenly, all those column inches dedicated to his various failures in the latter half of his career turn into an unrelenting showering of adulations. As is the fickle nature of football fans, #WengerOut becomes #MerciArsène. The whole thing is not too different to when Michael Jackson died. And Wenger’s not even left the club yet. While certain fans are perhaps understandably overjoyed at the news, I am still unsure about how I feel. Yes, as long as we appoint a capable new manager, there is every chance that this team will perform better than it has been doing for the past two seasons. And Wenger, who now has a maximum of seven games left in charge, will undoubtedly go down in history as a legend. Not just at Arsenal for being their longest-serving and most successful manager, but for football in general, for revolutionising the game when he first arrived in England as an obscure Frenchman after a stint in Japan. However, when you see his eyes well up in his recent interviews, and he speaks of the hurt he felt from the division among the fans, it’s hard not to feel for the man.

Wenger in October 1996 after his appointment (Image credit: Arsenal.com)

Corley Miller’s brilliant article from a few years back referred to Wenger as the “Martyr of Islington, the Premier League’s last magical perfectionist, last crusading aesthete, last Catholic.” In a world where success is measured by material gains, Wenger was always ready to sacrifice himself in an act of martyrdom for both Arsenal Football Club and the beauty of the sport. Aesthetically beautiful football has always been a hallmark of Wenger’s teams, and while that has perhaps dulled comparatively in recent years, his commitment to it certainly hasn’t. And while he was offered many larger contracts from rival clubs during his entire career, he decided to remain faithful to Arsenal, and to his project of developing its future. It is perhaps also no surprise that one of his great admirers is Jeremy Corbyn, the local MP and lifelong fan of Arsenal. Much like Corbyn’s unflinching dedication to principles greater than simply himself, Wenger stands out from the rest as a testament to the power of romantic ideals and what they can achieve, even if they distinctly set you apart from the herd.

My mother comes from a Hindu family, my father from a Muslim family, and I was raised mostly secular. When trying to understand why I put myself through being an Arsenal fan, the only conclusion I can come to is that it is the closest thing to a religion I have. I mean it’s a blind allegiance to a faction which gathers under symbols and chants and defines itself in opposition to other factions even though they all ultimately want the same thing. As a side note, being an Arsenal fan in recent years has also been akin to the biblical story of Job, whose faith is repeatedly tested by increasing acts of cruelty from god. As humans, I believe that we have an instinct for mutual aid and collectivisation, as much as for violence and division, and religion was one of the first institutions to put that to use. Football fandom is simply a different expression of that same instinct. The reason I will always love Arsène Wenger and everything he has done is because his devotion to Arsenal was also in a way religious — a profound faith in a greater cause. Those fans who are cheering now will certainly come to miss what they are losing. I know I will. So adieu, Mr. Wenger, and thank you for all you’ve suffered for us.

Image credit: Red London

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Aranyo Aarjan

North London Bengali, writing about politics, culture, football and climate