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Remembering Arsène: The L’Equipe Interview

Looking back on Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal tenure is a most un-Arsène exercise. He’s a man who insists on the present; the past, particularly his own, has not interested him.

But memory is a strong force. It shapes our view of ourselves and of our present. Memory also helps forge a shared understanding, and though in most cases it’s constructed and contrived, it helps us relate to others.

So when I reflect on this extraordinary individual’s time at Arsenal, it’s telling, if unusual, that my first thought is not of an unforgettable performance on the pitch, a searing image of Wenger in his technical area, or an indelible segment of his public declarations.

Instead, I turn to Arsène in what comes close to his fullest written expression, his October 2015 interview with L’Equipe Sport & Style.

Arsène Philosophe

This brought me even closer in spirit to Arsène. Captivated by words on the page and drawn to those who mark themselves as thoughtful and distinctive, I found this interview by Erik Bielderman masterful. It reads like a work of philosophy.

Indeed, Wenger emerges from it as a philosopher-coach. Since I discovered my own passion for football living in France in the mid-90s, I’ve known of Wenger as an intelligent, compelling character. I’ve subsequently admired his wisdom and wit as his work grew more accessible across the Atlantic.

That admiration peaked—and has remained high—with his revelations to Bielderman.

Much of what he said then has re-emerged in different forms as Arsenal fans, observers, and to a limited extent the man himself have thought about his Arsenal oeuvre. That only enhances the value and impact of these thoughts in their original appearance, or at least the appearance that seemed original to me.

The Joy of Now

No doubt the stage I have reached in life has something to do with this interview’s meaning. I’m a parent of two school-aged daughters, who have shifted my perspective from long-term achievement, delayed gratification, and occasional bitterness at injustice and slights to appreciation of small pleasures in the moment.

In that context, this observation from Arsène really hit home:

The only moment of happiness possible, that’s the present. The past gives regrets. And the future uncertainty. Man understood this very quickly and invented religion. It forgives him for the evil he’s done in the past and tells him not to worry about the future—because he’ll go to Paradise. That means, take advantage of the present.

Aside from the gender-specific awkwardness of the French language, this seems like a healthy recognition. Not just live for the moment, regardless of the consequences, but enjoy what you have in the here and now.

For many, this is not at all straightforward. Mental illness and physical hardship are real. I don’t think Wenger is downplaying those realities. I think he’s saying, when you are able to choose your outlook, choose not to have, as he put it, “an anguished enough relationship with time.” Instead, focus on where you are, right now, and seek joy there.

Serendipity in support

This interpretation has changed the way I watch football matches. Before digesting this interview, I would watch at an analytical distance; as a one-time sports journalist, I found this position natural. I’d try to determine how the complex organism of a team was sent out to function and how those plans changed in contact with the opposition’s intentions and execution.

There’s still an element of that in my perspective. But, thanks to Wenger, I’m also on the lookout for the unexpected. Those moments out of the blue that bring joy. A subtle deception by Mesut Özil or a late-game surge by Aaron Ramsey.

This outlook is foreign to the current Age of Outrage. We’re pressed to call any imperfection a personal affront and to join narratives of disillusionment and victimhood.

This strikes me as twisted.

Or, as Wenger said,

An Arsenal supporter, when you finish fourth, says to you: ‘Hey, that’s 20 years we’ve finished in the Top 4. We want to win the Premier League!’ They don’t give a fuck if Manchester City or Chelsea have invested 300 or 400 million euros. They just want to beat them. But you finish fifteenth for two years, they’ll be happy if you finish fourth afterwards.

Values and meaning

The manager’s brief farewell tour provided him the opportunity to return to other ideas he professed in this 2015 interview: the beauty in collective achievement, his self-identification as an educator, his aversion to means-justify-the-ends approaches, the shock of the transition away from Arsenal.

Above everything, he has stressed values. Because he hasn’t defined them, “values” serve as a shorthand for many concepts, a shorthand that avoids controversy. We can all project what’s important to us onto the notion of “values” without coming into conflict with anyone else’s interpretation.

That said, I can personally relate to an extraordinary human being, one of the most interesting people in the world, when he says, “Anyway, there’s only one way to live one’s life. To be in alignment with the values that seem important to you.”

Tout à fait, Monsieur Wenger.

(The translations are my own. For a more extended English version, see Arseblog News here.)

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