Why Arsene Wenger will always be different from the rest
Leaving the club may be something of a mercy for Wenger, allowing him new chances to win the adulation and respect he deservesUpdated: May 05, 2018 11:19 IST
It was a resignation that sent shockwaves around the world. Arsenal fans will long remember where they were when they heard the news on April 20 that Arsene Wenger, the French manager of the London-based football club, would be stepping down from the post he had held for 22 years. I was still in bed, blinking away sleep in the gloom as my phone lit up with astonished alerts and messages. I wasn’t totally surprised - Arsenal under Wenger are in the midst of a protracted period of decline - but I felt winded nonetheless.
For many Arsenal fans of my vintage, Wenger is the only “gaffer” we have known, synonymous with the club from his commitment to graceful football to his cosmopolitan bearing to his owlish, professorial demeanour to the coincidence of his first name Arsene. He has assumed the role in my life of a long-serving dictator or monarch, a figure who is at once remote to me and yet whose influence I felt always, as if he presided over my days with an at-times benevolent, at-times maddening paternal care. His ouster (there are strong indications that the manager’s resignation was coerced, not voluntary) resembles the toppling of a ruler who clung to power for too long.
The analogy is not far-fetched. Many football clubs have a lot in common with countries. Arsenal are estimated to have over 100 million dedicated fans around the world. Like citizens of a nation-state, they constitute an “imagined community” of strangers knit together by their identification with the team. They share anthems and flags, a cultural frame of reference of history and lore. They sport uniforms. Many pay taxes in the form of membership fees to the club and ticket prices. They see the world of football through a red-tinted parochial media of Arsenal blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels and fanzines. When a beloved player leaves for a rival team, the move is treated not just as a defection but as an act of high treason, a betrayal of both State and nation. Certain fanatical fans are like Kremlinologists, obsessing about the internal politics of the club, parsing every official statement for half-truths and lies, forever sifting for evidence of conspiracy. For many supporters, the intensity of their identification with the club trumps allegiances to city and nation, tribe and religion.
Wenger loomed over that welter of affiliations. He was the locus of the daily emotional and mental work of our fandom. While other teams shed managers the way snakes molt their skins, Wenger persisted for over two decades, a tenure that will never be surpassed at Arsenal.
It’s one of the wrinkles of the digital age that we can form such connections to entities far away. In college, whenever I would power up my creaking old desktop computer, I would be greeted by an animated widget of Arsene Wenger, jovial if a bit bobble-headed, juggling a football and updating me on the latest club news. Those were golden days for Wenger and the club, so my term papers were often interrupted with the recap of a splendid victory or tremendous goal. Unfortunately, over time, the Wenger desktop widget made my computer crash and I had to uninstall it. Arsenal have not won the Premier League since.
With the exception of three years in London when I lived close to the hallowed turf of the club and attended many matches, my following of Arsenal has been at a remove. I have watched Wenger on TV or over choppy Internet streams as he celebrated league triumphs with his endearing lanky jigs or as he disarmed journalists with his oblique Wengerisms (“The only moment of possible happiness is the present. The past is for regrets and the future is uncertain. Man quickly understood that and, as a consequence, invented religion.”). In later years, scenes of a haggard and drawn Wenger became almost metronomic, a melancholy rhythm to my weekends. Across oceans, I felt his agitation viscerally as he fretted on the touchline, wringing his long hands, growing more creased and white-haired as his concerns mounted and Arsenal’s fortunes dwindled.
Leaving the club may be something of a mercy for Wenger, allowing him new chances to win the adulation and respect he deserves. Arsenal might be less fortunate; the club faces a difficult transition ahead as it uncouples itself from the man who has so defined it. I will miss the reassuring familiarity of his presence in my life. New managers will come and go, but none will match Wenger’s longevity and his far-ranging, accumulated impact. Though he is now wizened and venerable, it was his very modern power to occupy the daily imaginations, hopes and angst of so many people for such a long time.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories
The views expressed are personal