I had 20 good years supporting Manchester United but now I follow Arsenal, and I find the treatment of the magnificent Arsène Wenger by large sections of my fellow fans mystifying and depressing. I supported Manchester United because when Rupert Murdoch bought top-tier English football in the early 1990s and started marketing it aggressively at the middle classes — who, like me, had previously had no interest in the sport — United were the only logical choice. They played pulsating, swaggering football and often scored thrilling wins from seemingly impossible situations. The young men who made up the spine of the team had grown up together in a boys’ own story and — most importantly — they had a manager in Sir Alex Ferguson who was a high priest of romance.
But then he left. And what followed has been very dull. So I stopped supporting United and started following Arsenal. Chiefly out of admiration for their dignified and daring French manager.
Damian Reilly and Oly Duff debate Wenger’s future:
What I like most about supporting Arsenal is the football. The club win most of their games but never sacrifice style and flair for the deadening pragmatism of results. Wenger wants only to play and to win beautifully, and in an ugly world that is something I find uplifting. ‘I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man,’ is how he once described his football philosophy. ‘I define myself as an optimist. My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.’ To my mind, this could only be improved if it was delivered in iambic pentameter.
What I most dislike about supporting Arsenal is the fans, or at least the thousands of them who kvetch and moan endlessly about the manager, as if they were somehow indentured to a hated boss. I also dislike the all-pervading sense of entitlement they exude at every opportunity. The loathing these people feel towards a decent man like Wenger has become so vicious and twisted that this season they have taken to punching fellow Arsenal supporters at matches. Someone even paid to have an aircraft flown over the stadium trailing a banner with the cringe-inducingly impolite message: ‘Wenger out.’ The argument for defenestrating the team’s greatest–ever manager (based on trophies won) is that Arsenal have not won the league recently. The team were last crowned English champions in 2004 — Liverpool, by way of comparison, have not won it for 27 years and Newcastle for 90 years. The fact that Arsenal finished second last year and third the year before that makes no odds. Wenger has become public enemy No. 1 for failing to win the league for 13 years.
This season, the Wenger debate seems to have reached a crescendo. There is a good chance the club might finish outside the top four in the league for the first time since he became manager. Doing so would mean not qualifying for the immensely lucrative European Champions League — grist to the mill for those who want him gone. Maddeningly, he won’t say if he’ll stay.
The anger directed at Wenger is as idiotic as it is unfair and goes to the heart of a boorish culture that encourages people, men particularly, to tie up a large portion of their self-worth in the fortunes of a football team made up of people they’ve never met. In this respect, the rage at coming second is a form of self-hatred. It’s not enough any more to follow a team and to take an interest, to enjoy the ups and downs. Thanks to relentless marketing campaigns that have cynically persuaded us we must live and die by the fortunes of our team, we’re no longer mere spectators. Instead, we are our team.
You hear it endlessly on the football phone-in radio shows. Every caller speaks as if he or she had been on the pitch, orchestrating play from the centre of midfield. It’s all ‘we’ and ‘our’, never ‘they’ and ‘their’. Debbie from Bromley says: ‘We just wanted it more — we played for each other.’
We’re often told football is a religion. That’s a fine metaphor for an afternoon. It’s fun to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, to lose our identity in the passionate mass for a little while. But the inescapable problem is that football is not really a religion. Far from it. It’s a game and also a multi-billion-pound product.
These sentiments, along with my own supporting history, are heresy in football. You cannot switch allegiance. You cannot support just for the fun of the game. Because an entire industry is geared toward suppressing objectivity and encouraging fans to feel they are members of something they can never leave, no matter how grindingly unhappy they might become with the product.
It’s an incredible feat of marketing: brand loyalty any CEO would kill for. You might buy Heinz baked beans but I suspect doing so does not make you think you are a member of the Heinz organisation. If Heinz changed the recipe and you no longer liked it, you would buy another brand of beans. But football does not work this way. Why not?
Arsène Wenger would do well to tell the so-called Arsenal supporters who daily hound him and the team he has created to go and support someone else. This would make sense, for them and for him. If fans started leaving in large numbers, perhaps he would lose his job. Conversely, in the absence of their vocal negativity, his team would likely fare better.
Arsenal have won the league 13 times in 124 years. Wenger has won it three times in 20 years, along with six FA Cups. For that, and everything he has done for the club, supporters should not be trying to get him out. Instead they should focus their energies on erecting a statue of him that will be visible from space.