Get French Football News publishes the entirety of Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger’s incredible interview with L’Équipe’s monthly supplement Sport and Style Magazine, during which he discusses life, death and football extensively.
Arsène, if I say to you 6945 on this date, October 9th, what does that make you think of?
You have been the Arsenal manager for 6945 days. More than the total amount of days of the other 19 Premier League managers combined.
Oh really? And that is how much in seconds, if you are so good at maths? (he laughs)
Easy: 6945 x 24 x 3600!
For me, it doesn’t mean anything other than I have been doing a job that has been exclusively pointing towards the future. To the next day. I always live in the future. It is planned. Restricted. I actually have quite an anxious relationship with time. I am always in the process of fighting with it. That is, I totally ignore what belongs to the past.
How is the next minute in time the source of your anxiety?
I am always scared of being late. Of not being ready. To not have achieved everything that I have planned. My relationship with time is filled with anxiety in every way. Going back in time, looking back is just as volatile. First of all it is scary, because there is not as much to come as one has already lived… The only way to fight against time is to not look back too much. If you do, it is frightening and sometimes makes you feel guilty.
You use the word anxiety to describe tomorrow just as much as yesterday…
The only possible moment of happiness is the present. The past contains regrets. The future, uncertainty. Man very quickly understood that and created religion. It forgives those who have done wrong in the past and tells them no to worry about the future, because you will go to paradise. That means you should make the most of the present. Man psychoanalysed himself very early through faith.
Your clarity on the relationship between man and religion is very apart from your view as a teenager on the question at hand. At the time, you read the Roman Missal to help your team win…
Sadly, today, that works less! At the same time, thankfully, it means that my team does not necessarily need God in order to win.
In terms of your relationship with the present, in a match, does the manager feels like he almost has a mystical power? You are the creator of your team, its style of play, of its strategy.
From a religious standpoint, one says that God created man. For me, I am only an accompanist. I let others express what they have within themselves. I have created nothing. I am a facilitator for what is beautiful in man. I define myself as an optimist. My never ending fight in this job, is to bring out what is beautiful in man. One can in that respect portray me as naive. At the same time, it allows me to believe and I am often proved right.
Sometimes, I do not succeed in generating the best of what man has inside of him. It gives me the opportunity to analyse where exactly I have failed.
You say that we portray you as naive. Would you not perhaps prefer to be called an idealist?
A person told me: “there is only one way of living with the idea of death, it is to try to transform the present into art”. That is relevant to everything that I just spoke of.
Art is not necessarily a source of universal beauty. Pieces can please or shock depending on each individual’s relationship with beauty.
I chose a team sport. There is a type of magic when men combine their energies to express a common idea. That is where sport becomes beautiful. The misfortune of man comes about when he finds himself alone trying to fight against the problems that he must face. Especially in modern society.
Team sport has a particular value, it is to be able to be ahead of its time. You can play with eleven players with eleven different nationalities and produce a collective piece of work. Sport today can show maybe what the world will be like tomorrow. We can also share fantastic emotions with people we cannot even talk to.
That is not yet possible in society on a daily basis. In that sense, team sport stands as an example. When tennis turns to the Davis Cup, it brings with it something that does not otherwise exist. The golf with the Ryder Cup too. People feel it. That pulse is there.
Could you have been a coach in an individual sport?
I do not believe so. To go all the way into the individual, to see what motivates him, interests me enormously. But I was brought up in team sport and my psyche is built like that. To be the coach of one, lone athlete would have frustrated me. It is linked with my education. In my village, we only played football or basketball.
Having been a professional footballer, but not a great player, does that make you more measured, does it give you more patience, when considering what your team can achieve?
You can explain that with the relationship that a player has with frustration, for not reaching what he desired. Whatever happens, whatever could have happened in my career, I would have stayed in football. Football was for me an unambiguity. A sort of crazy unambiguity.
There were moments, when I was 24-25 years old, I would tell myself: shit, if I could no longer play football, I would kill myself! I said to myself: what is the point of life otherwise?
Seriously. I tried for a long time to understand how one could be so stupid. Quite simply because I was raised in a restaurant-bar which acted as the headquarters for a football club. We only spoke about football. People would make the team on Wednesday and on Thursday for Sunday.
I barely knew how to walk and I was already watching them, listening to them. And I would think: Wow, they’re going to play him on the left-wing, well they’re going to struggle to win again then.
Did you quickly become involved in these discussions?
Oh yes. At the age of around 4 or 5 I began to become aware of them and then I started to get involved in them at around the age of 9 or 10. I was confined to a culture where, subconsciously, I thought football was more important than life. Because that is all that people would speak about.
Up against your anxieties at the age of 24 or 25, how did you become more secure, more reassured?
It happened gradually. At 25 or 26, I went to give a conference in Mulhouse with one of my friends who was a technical advisor. He offered me the chance to train coaches. The transformation process was then gradually put into place. Then my manager at Strasbourg, Max Hild, said to me: “come to the academy with me”.
I went there and I became his assistant. And as he quickly became the manager of the first team, I was promoted to the position of Director at the academy at the age of 30. At 32, that was the only thing I was doing, I had stopped playing football in tandem. And then after that, everything went very quickly. I did not have time to ask myself existential questions. In the beginning, aspirations adapt to physical, [material] potential. I knew that I could not play football eternally.
Do you consider yourself today to be at the end of your coaching career? Another mini death. You have just turned 66.
I totally ignore this question. I am a bit like a guy who is 34 and is still playing. He has a bad game and we tell him: “um, ok, you need to stop my friend”. I do not even ask myself the question about what I will do afterwards, because it will be an extremely difficult shock.
Much more difficult than the one I experienced going from a player to a manager. Because with this one, it will be about switching from hyperactivity to emptiness. It is for that reason that I refuse to ask myself that question. I am like a guy who is not very far from goal, who continues to advance, and who ignores the wall.
Now, if I told you Erik, that you had just 24 hours to live. Would you be thinking about the knife that will cut your throat [in 24 hours time] – or would you simply try to live them [the hours] to the fullest? That is the question of the end of life.
The example of Alex Ferguson who, at the age of 71, abruptly stopped at the request of his wife who was distressed after losing her sister, does that inspire you?
For me, at this level, Ferguson is an example. For starters, he always knew how to reinvent himself, how to evolve. He did not stand still in success. It is a quality of his that I appreciate. He always knew how to challenge himself. Even if he did it instinctively.
But he had other passions. He liked horses. Wine. He knew red wine better than I did. Recently, I met with him and I said to him: “Alex, do you not miss it?”. He responded to me “not at all”. I was at that moment disappointed and comforted. It gives me a reason to hope for myself.
Do you not have other passions?
No. That is where my natural anxiety comes from. I am not Ferguson. I do not have a substitute and I am not interested in looking back either. Like writing a book about what on my experiences. I suffer when I see former players who come back to see me and who are no longer fully happy.
To be presented as Mr X, the former Arsenal player, and not for what he is today is painful. Having to be what you once were is a form of suffering. I hope, in my after-life [life after football], that I can be something other than the former manager of Arsenal. Coach kids. Be useful.
Why do you keep nothing from the past?
It worries me a bit. If you came to my house, you would never guess that you were in the house of a football manager. If you asked me where my medal is from the last FA Cup, I could not tell you. I think I gave it to the club doctor or the kit man.
It is paradoxical for the manager of a club who was an acute sense of history and of passing on.
I am enormously interested in other people’s histories. Mine concerns me the least. Because I experienced it and not looking back allows me to ignore all the mistakes that I made in my life. It allows you to avoid feeling guilty. I always found it a bit pathetic, the people who visit their own museum and recount what great things they have done in their life.
Who, other than yourself, will leave a mark of your professional career then?
My club will do it very well. The media is so amplified today that they will also have a narrative about me, even if it will not necessarily be my story. The truth is undoubtedly more interesting because lots of things are glossed over in terms of what I have been through.
My father, for example, would collect everything that was written about me. Sometimes, I feel like I have betrayed him. Because I am not interested in that. Maybe that will change. One day, who knows, I might say: my friend, it is time to pause and reflect on what I have been through.
Could telling [people about what you have experienced] make it easier to pass things on?
The most beautiful thing about my job, is to be able to pass on and influence the people’s lives. In a positive way.
How do you feel about there being a statue of you, despite you still being alive, like Sir Alex Ferguson and Thierry Henry?
It makes me feel a bit uneasy. I prefer to fight each day to convince the general opinion that I what I have done is not so bad. Today, we are very quickly brought into question. What has changed in our jobs, is that the accumulation of achievements does not protect you. We are tirelessly forced to fight to be respected.
Is it harder for a modern football manager to convince rather than to win?
To win, you need to convince. Society has gone from verticality to horizontality. A manager in 1960 would say: “guys, we are doing it like this” and nobody would contest him. Today, you first have to convince. A footballer is rich. The characteristic of a rich man is the necessity for him to be convinced.
Because he has a status. A way of thinking. People today are informed. They therefore have an opinion. And they think that their opinion is the right one. They might not necessarily share mine, so I have to convince them otherwise.
It took you a bit of time at first at Arsenal to convince the club and the fans to follow your principles.
Arsenal is a club based around tradition that is not scared of innovating.
Because you and David Dein, then the Vice-President of Arsenal and above all your friend, shook up the traditions.
They were not scared to follow me. It is a true act of courage.
They certainly gave you time, you are embarking upon your 20th year at Arsenal.
Time is a true luxury. I’ll give myself merit for one thing: I’ve always treated Arsenal as if it belonged to me. I have sometimes been criticised for it. Because I am not enough of a spender. Not carefree enough.
I credit myself for having had the courage to to apply my ideas and fight for them. Aside from that, I can understand why people might not agree. My great pride will be to be able to say the day that I leave, that I am leaving behind a good team, a healthy situation and a club capable of performing in the future.
I could have said to myself: I am here for four or five years, we win everything, I leave and leave the club on the verge of bankruptcy. For me, consistency at the highest level is the true sign of great clubs. Real Madrid failed to win a title in 21 years before the arrival of Di Stefano in 1952 after all.
At Real Madrid today, you can be crowned champion and still get sacked anyway…
They have entered into the modern circuit. They need fresh faces. Its an addiction to headlines. For me, consistency in results depends on the cohesion within the club. Throwing everything away, all the time, only makes sense if you have hyper-unlimited resources. Then, you can win. If not, you are done for.
You speak about consistency and patience. When you were manager of Monaco, you were more volatile.
I have matured. I went to Japan. I learnt to control myself. I have a hyper-sensitivity that I mastered, bit by bit. I started managing properly at the age of 33, now I’m 66. To survive, I had to adapt.
Would it have had a negative impact on your health if you hadn’t?
No. I was always ready to pay the price with my health in a stupid way, but more the price of survival in this business. Because I realised that I could cause irreplaceable damage after matches.
Your time in Japan, where you managed Nagoya Grampus Eight, profoundly changed you.
My President, Shoichiro Toyoda, told me that he dreamt of making Nagoya the biggest club in Japan and in the world in 100 years time. That eradicates the immediate pressure in a fantastic way. What is a defeat if you project your destiny upon a century? I found that to be an extremely kind principle.
To be but a convert belt in history, as part of a movement that is much bigger than you. To be part of something that surpasses you. Alas, we live too often with the idea that the world will stop after we do. That is not humanity. There is a form of scientism within that. Being the bearer of the destiny of an ever-improving humanity. We can question that today…
That’s the least that one could say…
Nagoya called it into question (he laughs). They have not made much progress since I left them. That being said, it has only been twenty years. Actually, President Toyoda is back and he came back to see me for advice. Practically every month. I am still very close to them.
Earlier on, while watching you were dressing up for the photoshoot, I cast my mind back to a thought courtesy of Mircea Lucescu, the manager of Shakhtar Donetsk, about you: “Arsène is an aristocrat. He is not driven by the working class ideals of an Alex Ferguson or by the aggressive nature of a José Mourinho. He looks to educate above all.” Do you see that as a true reflection of yourself?
I do not deny that before all else I am an educator. On the other hand, I do not at all feel like an aristocrat. If you had lived with me, loading manure onto carts, you would understand. I try to be truthful to the values that I find important in life and to transmit those onto others.
In 30 years as a coach, I have never had my players injected so that they might perform better. I’m proud of that. I have played against a lot of teams who were not in the same frame of mind.
Aristocracy is a state of being, it is not necessarily inherited.
I do not deny what others feel, but me, I feel like the guy from Duttlenheim who went running in the fields every day. And of course the aristocrats, they had their heads cut off where we come from. What I strive for, is the passing on of values. Not right by blood.
A civilisation that honours neither their dead nor their values, is condemned to vanish.
Exactly, you are in England and you have not kept your farmer’s outfit. You are always impeccable on the bench on match days.
Because I feel responsible for the image that football gives and the image that I want to give of my club. And, at the same time, football is a celebration. And where I come from, when I was young, we dressed up on Sundays. I loved, when I arrived in England, to see managers wearing suits and ties.
As if to say “listen up guys, our aim is to make this moment a celebration”. I adhered to that. I want to be the guy who wakes up in the morning and says to himself, Arsenal are playing today, I’m going to have a good time.
This guy there starts his day by telling himself that something positive is going to happen to him. And for that reason, the big clubs must have the ambition of putting on a show. To share joy. We do not always achieve that.
Having a good day out at the Emirates is quite different to having a good day at Highbury, your former stadium, no?
Expectations have become much more important. The philosophical definition of happiness, is when what you want and what you have aligns. And what you want changes as soon as you have it. Always more. Always better. To the point where it becomes difficult to satisfy. An Arsenal fan, when you finish fourth, will tell you: “hey, for 20 years now we have been in the top 4. We want to win the league!”
They don’t care that Manchester City or Chelsea have invested 300 or 400 million Euros. They just want to beat them. But if you finish fifteenth for two years, they will be happy if you finish 4th after that.
It is not only the fans who are impatient. Even Thierry Henry said on Sky Sports: Arsenal “Must Win”, must become champions this season.
“Must” [is a word that] can be used for death. We “must” die one day. I prefer in my life to replace “must” with “want”. To want rather than to have to. If you tell me, you have to go out tonight, I already want to go out less. If you say to me do you want to go out tonight? Yes, I want to! That is why life should be loved. “Must”… “must”… there is nothing I “must” do.
At least that is over with…
For me, the beauty of sport is that everybody wants to win, but there will only be one winner. You put twenty billionaires at the head of 20 English clubs, there will be just one champion and 19 disappointed ones.
My grandfather used to say to me: “I do not understand, in the 100 metres, there is one person who runs it in 10.1 seconds, another in 10.2, they’re both quick. What is the point of all of that?” The bottom line is, they are both very fast. This is very dangerous for sport.
We have come into an era where we glorify those who win no matter what their methods or their resources are. We find out ten years later that the guy cheated. And the person who came second at that time, he suffers. He is not recognised. And with all that is not being said about them… he has something to be unhappy about.
You insist on fair play, in that sense are you a true Englishman?
I have not always played fair. In each of us, there is the desire to win and the hatred of defeat. I have at times really struggled to play fair because of my absolute hatred for defeat. Speaking of which, I am still the only manager to have one the English league without losing a match. But the English have something extra on the fair-play side of things.
Look at the rugby team who were knocked out at home in the group stages who gave the Australians a guard of honour as they left the field. There, I say, respect. You know how much they suffer. How much they suffer in real-time humiliation. Admittedly, it is a good image for sport.
What I liked a lot about sumo wrestling in Japan, is that at the end of the fight the winner never shows his delight so as to not humiliate his opponent. I have suffered enormously in defeat. When I see the behaviour and excesses in certain countries, I find what Japanese culture conveys or English sense of values to be remarkable.
In what way have you become definitively English?
It is the country of my heart. It is not scared of emotion. In English, we would say “I love it!”. Here, our emotions are clouded by our Cartesian spirit that dominates us. Here, we do not know how to love limitlessly. We like PSG, but… The English know how to let themselves be free in emotion.
A number of former Gunners have built their post-football career in England, like Robert Pirés, Patrick Vieira or Thierry Henry. Will you eternally remain a Londoner?
I have not decided. What is for certain, is that my attachment to Arsenal will remain until the end of my days. I’ve had moments where I could have broken that [other offers], but I have always refused them. I do not see how today I could have a managerial career elsewhere.
Are you sure about that?
Almost certain (he laughs). If tomorrow morning I am told goodbye and thank you by Arsenal, I cannot promise you that I will not look to continue to work, to live my passion. But without a doubt not in England.
To educate, rather than to manage?
Above all I do not want the desire to be an educator to be put in a position where it contradicts the desire to win. That makes the educator sound a bit stupid. The starting point for any manager must be the desire to educate. One of the beauties of our job, is to be able to positively influence the course of man’s life.
You, like me, we have had the chance to meet people who believed in us and who brought us forward. The streets are full of people full of talent, but who did not have the chance to find someone who instilled their belief within them. I can be the one that facilitates life, that gives opportunities.
And during a match, on the opposite bench, when you are confronted with a manager for whom only the result counts, whatever the means…
I have often been treated as naive in such an instance. In every case, there is only one way in which one can live their life. To conform to the values that you feel are important. If I did not respect them, I would be unhappy. Whatever the case, I have always been a man who was committed to the cause. With my good and bad sides.
If you had to pick one moment in your career?
To have arrived in London facing such great scepticism. My first championship title, my first double. From “Arsène who” to he who became a pioneer. The first non-British manager to succeed in England.
And if there was something that was sore?
To be, after every single defeat, despite the consistency that we have put into our work at the highest level, questioned about everything that has been done. The “everything down the pan” reaction. A balance must be found between your masochistic capacity to put up with what you are forced to endure and your delight in accomplishment.
Today, the masochistic capacity has to be far more considerable so that I can express my passion. I am at that point now. I do many things that make me suffer.
Is that why you stay away from the media?
Of course. Do you know somebody who wakes up in the morning and says: Hey, I want to receive 50 lashes?
Aside from the main interview, Arsène Wenger also spoke about his passion for watches:
It is not really an obsession. It is a joy. It can explain the personality of a man. It was the first piece of jewellery I had in my life. At the time, when you did your Communion at the age of 14, your godfather would give you a watch. It was very formal. I got a “Lip” that day. The watch, it was my first big present.
It marked my journey from life as a child to an adult. I could have started smoking at that age If I had wanted to. My father did not tell me that it was not allowed. I was in the world of grown-ups. Because physically I was capable to work with my arms as a man. It was like that in the countryside world. I like to look at the watches that people wear.
It is a true revealer for who they are. For training, I have an all-terrain watch, I do not wear the one that is on my wrist today. I associate the watch that I will wear with the clothes that I am wearing. It is my only form of jewellery.