The sport that Arsene Wenger brought back from Japan was sumo wrestling. Not at participant level, obviously. Fit as a flea, he hasn’t the build. What enthralled Wenger was sumo’s culture, its principles.
‘Sumo is historical,’ he says. ‘The roots haven’t changed since the 1600s. It taught me a lot. Respect is a fundamental value. There are six tournaments a year and you have to win two of them to become a yokozuna, the highest rank.
‘But the winning sumo wrestler then must go before a judging committee who assesses whether his behaviour has been beyond reproach.
Arsene Wenger spoke exclusively to Sportsmail about his life before, during and post-Arsenal
‘Competitiveness is important but it is not enough on its own. The victor must also have behaved impeccably, he cannot just be the dominant one. The result isn’t the only criterion. Then you must show you have acted in the right way. I never forgot that.’
But you did try to buy Luis Suarez, who kept biting people.
‘Ha ha ha,’ laughs Wenger, like the head boy recalling the day he was caught bunking off five minutes early. ‘Yes, we did want Suarez. But we also hoped he would be intelligent and change his behaviour — which he did at Barcelona.’
And that was always the contradiction with Wenger: high-minded principles in a win-at-all-costs game. One moment Le Professeur, the next nose to nose on the touchline with Alan Pardew or Jose Mourinho.
‘I think I managed 1,235 games for Arsenal,’ he says, although he doesn’t think, he knows. ‘And I controlled myself for 1,225. The other 10, well…’ He trails off.
‘But every time I didn’t I regretted it because I hadn’t behaved as I should and I felt responsibility towards the club for that.
‘Sometimes I thought I was provoked or resented the behaviour of somebody else. Some games I went in with an aggressive level above what it should be, so it didn’t take much to go overboard.’
‘Yes, it was a bit like that with Jose Mourinho but now it has calmed down. That is why in the book I only speak about Ferguson because we are not in the job any more. Ferguson was a bad loser, like me. I didn’t want to talk about managers like Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola, who are still working.’
Wenger had a number of touchline rows with Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson
But we do talk about a few of those managers because Wenger has an unusual affinity with them. He was raised in a rural community, in Duttlenheim, a German- speaking French village.
‘The horse ruled supreme,’ he says of his Alsatian birthplace, ‘there were three blacksmiths.’ A farmers’ community would be considered a strange breeding ground for one of the great minds in football.
Yet Carlo Ancelotti is the son of a farmer from Reggiolo — where the best Parmesan comes from — whose natural dialect is so alien he would not be able to make himself understood speaking it to urban Italians.
As for Klopp, he grew up in Glatten, a village in the Black Forest where he says the locals would knock on the door of anyone not cleaning their front step on Saturday morning because they would be presumed seriously ill or dead.
So what is it about these small communities, these rural ideals that produce football’s best leaders and thinkers? Wenger considers this for a while. ‘I think in a village, surrounded by agriculture, you cannot cheat,’ he decides.
‘Everybody sees what you do. It’s a place of complete truth. You cannot say you produce 100kg of potatoes, because people can see you only have 50kg and they know you lie.
‘It’s also a place that has a culture where you can really be who you are. And it is an area of effort, one that tells you what is really important is to work hard. And at the time that means to physically work hard, so when you grow up you do not become scared of effort.
‘And, there, football is not work. It is fun. Work is what you do in the fields, coming back with corn or potatoes. Football is not serious. Except for me. When you are born, first you must survive. After that, you must find the meaning in life. My meaning was football, and still is.’
Once you understand his influences — sumo wrestling, stoic corn farmers — a lot about Wenger falls into place. Why, for instance, he never spoke out during the time his reputation was being traduced at Arsenal.
In his autobiography, he sets out in plain numbers why for so many years he spent the club’s money as if it was coming from his pocket. The £390million it cost to build the Emirates Stadium; bank restrictions on finance so that salaries could only be 50 per cent of budget; his five-year contract that was a condition of the loan.
Wenger sets out why he had to be conservative with money after the move to the Emirates
For seven years, Wenger says, the club had to concentrate on surviving, spending only what it could raise in the transfer market. Arsenal could no longer compete with clubs that had previously been their inferiors. Yet the board never admitted it.
Throughout this period, when fans fumed over a perceived lack of investment, stories would appear suggesting Wenger was the stick in the mud.
‘Moving home gives Wenger £100m to spend,’ The Independent, 2007. ‘Wenger signs up for £100m spending spree,’ Daily Mail, 2014. ‘Wenger could have almost £80m to spend if he wanted to,’ The Guardian, 2009. ‘Arsenal back Wenger with £70m to spend in summer,’ Daily Telegraph, 2013.
If this information emanated from inside Arsenal it did Wenger a grave disservice. Yet he never snapped, never passed the buck, never explained it as he does now, as we sit together in an alcove of his Hertfordshire home.
‘I always felt strongly that as a manager of a football club my job was to protect the club in every circumstance,’ he says, quietly. ‘And I did that sometimes against my own deep desire. I did it even though I didn’t completely agree with what was going on. I did it, even though people inside the club sometimes let that noise come out.
Wenger spoke about the responsibility he felt in protecting the club in every circumstance
‘You would see the stories that Arsenal had £100m to spend, but they were not true. They did it to protect themselves, but I never wanted to go into that game. Football is difficult enough even when you are united; if you are disjointed it becomes an Everest climb.
‘You know, Martin, in life you meet many brave people. You meet many intelligent people. Then you also meet people who are less brave, the ones who when it doesn’t go well, they only think to protect themselves. And that’s even more now in the modern game.
‘In football today, all judgments are made around the last game, and only the last game. It’s important to win and to win with style as I always tried to do. But you also need a long-term project, as well as your short-term project. Emotion is tied to the short term; but the strength of the club is long term. The problem is these longer-term projects are getting shorter and shorter.’
Yet by the end the absence of protection meant Wenger had become a point of conflict within the club. The supporters were divided over the man they once idolised.
Wenger after Arsenal lost at Stoke in December 2014, which provoked angry fan responses
On December 6, 2014, Arsenal went 3-0 down at Stoke City before half-time, eventually losing 3-2. Away supporters fought each other after the game, literally, with punches thrown, over whether Wenger should stay or go.
At Stoke-on-Trent station, Arsenal fans booed and shouted abuse as Wenger and his team boarded the train. Days like that must have been horribly painful, for a man who turned down just about every major club, and some countries, in Europe out of loyalty to Arsenal.
Was there ever a time when he regretted staying so long?
‘Maybe,’ he admits. ‘Maybe when David Dein was sacked in 2007 that was the moment when I could have said bye-bye. I felt torn between my loyalty to the club and my loyalty to David.
‘He asked me to stay but at first I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea. I didn’t understand why he had to go. But I knew as well that the club was going into a new stadium, the most sensitive period of its lifetime.
‘I could have really hurt Arsenal had I left then. And I did have options. Real Madrid twice, Paris Saint-Germain two or three times, England two or three times. It was difficult. You want everybody to support you, and when they don’t it’s quite difficult. You do think, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this? What do I want to achieve?”
The Frenchman admits he could have left when vice-chairman David Dein was sacked in 2007
‘Real Madrid were the team of my childhood. It was a dream, when you go every day to the field, that one day you were there with them.
‘But when it came I was so involved in getting Arsenal through this period, and today I am proud of that. Florentino Perez, Madrid’s president, still tells everybody, “This is the guy who turned me down — twice”.
‘And people must know, surely, that I was completely loyal to the club. I built it as a brand worldwide, as much as I could, and it is respected everywhere. So it’s always the titles that are talked about but what I think remains is your way, the values you carry through.
‘I understand that when you don’t win games people get very aggressive like at Stoke. But it never affected me too much. I just thought, “How can you be stupid like that?” People have children at home, they must see themselves on television, their children might see them and think, “What are they doing?” It’s very irresponsible, you know?
‘We fight against racism and rightly so, but any other discrimination or aggressive attitude can affect people exactly the same way. Yet it was encouraged, at some clubs. But I did also try to analyse why people were criticising and whether it was for the right reasons.
Wenger with the FA Cup and Premier League trophies after Arsenal’s famous 1998 double
‘If we didn’t play well, I would accept it. If it was hate, or people being manipulated by other people, or envy or revenge, that was harder. Ideally, you want everybody to be happy. By the end it was more difficult. I knew I was going so those last months were hard because you had no power over it any more.’
Away in the lounge are the spoils of those happier times, including the large, gold Premier League trophy, commemorating Wenger’s Invincibles, the only unbeaten champions since 1889. Arsenal presented it to him when he left after 22 seasons.
That aside, there is little by way of self-aggrandisement, many rooms in which it would be impossible to recognise a life vocationally immersed in football. Bronze sculptures of athletic figures surround the hexagonal vestibule, one performing an overhead kick, another jumping to head a ball.
I ask if he commissioned them, or is a collector, searching for the artistic soul behind all this touchline devotion.
‘Usmanov,’ Wenger explains, name-checking the Uzbekistani oligarch who once had designs on Arsenal. Forbes estimate his worth at £8.87billion. The figures were his gift. Now there is a man who might have presented Wenger with £100m to spend; and the rest.
Wenger received a gold Premier League trophy in 2018, commemorating the 2004 Invincibles
Maybe someone else will, too, some day. As of now, Wenger is FIFA’s head of football development, which still feels a little like Joan of Arc fronting up the Spanish Inquisition.
Yet even after he turned 71 this week, there remains the feeling that if his mobile exploded into life and the right club, or federation, was on the line he could be teased out of governance. After more than two years, the grieving process Wenger describes on leaving Arsenal may at last be over.
‘Yes, I’ve still got the desire to manage,’ he confirms. ‘I still think I can be useful somewhere else, that I can be efficient somewhere else. If the phone rings now, I would be tempted to say yes. I’ve said no before. It has rung. I’ve had offers. From big clubs, in the Champions League.
‘But I was at the end of a love story of 22 years. It meant some suffering, some thinking, so I felt I needed time to reflect on what I did, what was right, what was wrong. I was stamped too much with Arsenal.
‘It was like a grieving process. I built every stone of the training ground. I chose the plates, I chose the stairs. Everything inside. I was building every aspect of the technical area at the stadium with the architect, so much time there, too. And then, suddenly, you cannot go there any more.
‘It took time to get over that. I would lie if I said it was easy. I needed time to reflect: where can I go from here? I had never done this, because I always went straight into another job where you have to forget the past quickly. I was wobbling. I didn’t know whether I could go into management again. At my age I have less time left. I had to think it through.’
The $64m dollar question remains, however. Could Arsene Wenger manage against Arsenal?
‘In England it’s difficult for me to go somewhere else,’ he says. ‘I’m stamped Arsenal and I want to stay like that. When I see an Arsenal shirt, to me that is “we”. And I still say “we”. And I don’t think it exists any more, the freedom I had. But somewhere else? Maybe, I don’t know.
Wenger, pictured here on the day of his 2018 farewell, says he could manage against Arsenal
‘It would be a special day for me. I would be scared I would sit on the wrong bench — like Ron Atkinson did with Nottingham Forest against us. It was his first match for them. I remember getting to my place and asking him, “What are you doing here?” But if it’s your job, it’s your job. So you would have to do it.’
For now, he hasn’t even gone back to Arsenal, or any English ground, to watch a game. ‘I will one day,’ he muses. ‘Apparently, Tottenham have a fantastic new stadium. I’ve been invited by Daniel Levy.’
He lets that thought hang for a second or so, mischievously. He wouldn’t, of course, but it’s fun to imagine the looks on a few faces. Then he smiles, broadly. One-nil to the Arsene, again.
MY LIFE IN RED AND WHITE: MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £25. To order a copy for £21.25 (offer valid to 30/10/20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.