Arsène, if I say 6945, today on the 9th of October, what comes to mind ?
You have been manager of Arsenal for 6945 days. That’s as many days as all the current Premier League managers put together.
AW: Really? And how many seconds is that if you’re so good at maths (laughs) ?
Easy: 6945 x 24 x 3600!
AW: For me it doesn’t represent anything except doing a job that is exclusively turned to the future. Towards the next day. I always live in the future. It’s planned. Tight. My relationship with time is filled with anxiety. I’m always fighting against it. That’s why I ignore what’s in the past.
How is the coming minute a source of anxiety?
AW: I’m always afraid of being late. Of not being ready. Of not being able to accomplish what I’ve planned. My relationship with time is distressing in every way. Going back in time, looking back is just as scary. First of all it’s scary because there’s not as much to come as what has already been lived… The only way to fight time is to not look back too much. If you do, it can make you feel anxious and guilty.
You use the word anxiety to describe both tomorrow and yesterday…
AW: The only possible moment of happiness is the present. The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion. It absolves you of what you’ve done wrong in the past and tells him not to worry about the future, because he’ll go to paradise. It means make the most of the present. Man “self psychoanalysed” himself very quickly through faith.
Your lucidity on the relationship between man and religion is very different from your outlook as a teenager. In those days, you read the missal to help your team win…
AW: Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well today ! That’s a good thing though it means my team doesn’t necessarily need God to win.
In your relationship with the present, the game, does the manager feel like he’s entrusted with an almost mystical power? You are the creator of your team, its playing style, its strategy.
AW: Religiously, it is said that God created man. I am only a guide. I enable others to express what they have within them. I didn’t create anything. I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man. I define myself as an optimist. My never ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man. I can be described as naïve in that sense. But it allows me to believe, and I am often proven right.
AW: Sometimes, I can’t generate the best that man has in him. It gives me the opportunity to analyse where I’ve failed.
Earlier on, while you were getting dressed for the photo shoot, I was reminded of a quote by Mircea Lucescu, the Shakhtar Donetsk manager, about you: “Arsène is an aristocrat. He is not driven by the working class values of an Alex Ferguson or the aggressive nature of a José Mourinho. He tires to educate above all”. Do you recognise yourself in that description?
AW: I don’t deny that I’m first and foremost an educator. However, I don’t feel like an aristocrat at all. If you had lived with me, loading manure on carts, you would have understood. I try to be faithful to the values that I believe to be important in life and to pass them on to others. In thirty years as a manager, I’ve never had my players injected to make them better. I never gave them any product that would help enhance their performance. I’m proud of that. I’ve played against many teams that weren’t in that frame of mind.
Aristocracy can be a state of mind; it’s not necessarily inherited.
AW: I don’t deny what others feel, but feel like a kid from Duttlenheim who went running in the fields every day. Aristocrats had their heads cut off in France. I strive to pass on values. Not the right of blood. A civilisation that does not honour its dead or its values is doomed.
Precisely, you’re in England, and you didn’t keep your farmer’s outfit. You’re always impeccable on the bench on game day.
AW: Because I feel responsible for the image that football has, and the image that I want to give of my club. And also, football is a celebration. And where I come from, we dressed up on Sundays. I loved arriving in England and seeing the managers wearing suits and ties. As if they were saying, “Listen lads, our goal is to make a celebration out of this moment”. I joined in. I want that fan to wake up in the morning and say, Arsenal are playing today, I’m going to have a good time. That guy starts his day off by thinking that something good is going to happen to him. And to do that, big clubs have to have the ambition to play spectacularly. Of shared happiness. We don’t always succeed.
Spending a good day at the Emirates doesn’t have very much to do with a good day at Highbury does it?
AW: The expectation has risen. The philosophical definition of happiness is a match between what you want and what you have. And what you want changes as soon as you’ve got it. Always more. Always better. Hence the difficulty to satisfy. An Arsenal fan, when you finish fourth, will say, “Hey, we’ve been in the top four for twenty years. We want to win the league!”. They don’t care that Manchester City or Chelsea have spent 300 or 400 million euros. They just want to beat them. But if you finish fifteenth two years running, they will be happy if you finish fourth after that.
It’s not only the fans that are impatient. Even Thierry Henry said on Sky Sports : Arsenal must win (in English in the original text), this season.
AW: “Must” can be used for death. We must all die one day. In my life, I prefer replacing “must” with “want”. Wanting more than having to. If you tell me, you have to go out tonight, I don’t want to go out as much. If you tell me do you want to go out? Yes, I want to! That’s love for life. Must, must… I mustn’t do anything!
At least, that’s said now…
AW: For me, the beauty of sport is that everyone wants to win, but there will only be one winner. If you put 20 billionaires at the end of the twenty English clubs, there will only be one champion and nineteen disappointments. My grandfather used to say “I don’t understand, at the 100 metres, one runs in 10.1 seconds and the other one in 10.2 seconds, both are very fast. What’s the point?”
Today, we glorify the one that ran in 10.1 seconds, and say the one that ran 10.2 seconds. But both of them are very fast. That’s dangerous for sports. We have reached an era in which we glorify the winner, without looking at the means or the method. And ten years later we realise the guy was a cheat. And during that time, the one that came second suffered. He didn’t get recognition. And with all that’s been said about them…they can be very unhappy.
You insist on being fair play, are you a real Englishman in that sense?
AW: I haven’t always been fair play. In each and every one of use there is the desire to win and hatred for defeat. It was very difficult for me to be fair play because of my aversion for defeat. Speaking of which, I still am the only manager to have won the league without losing a single game. But the English have something more when it comes to fair play. Look at the rugby team, knocked out in the group stages at home and they clapped the Australians off the field. That deserves respect! You know how much they suffer. How they are humiliated. It’s good for the image of sport.
What I enjoyed about sumo in Japan is that at the end of the fight, the winner never celebrates so as to not humiliate the loser. I’ve greatly suffered in defeat. When I see the behaviour and the excesses in some countries, I think the values the Japanese culture conveys or the English sense of values are remarkable.
In what way have you become English?
AW: It’s the country of the heart. It is not afraid of emotion. In English, people will say “I love it!”. We pollute our emotions because of our Cartesian spirit. We don’t know how to love without limits. We like PSG, but… The English know how to lose themselves in emotions.
Many former Gunners stayed in England after their careers, people like Robert Pirès, Patrick Vieira or Thierry Henry. Will you be a Londoner forever?
AW: I haven’t decided yet. One thing is for sure; my link to Arsenal will remain until the end of my days. I’ve had opportunities that I’ve always refused. I don’t see myself as a manager anywhere else.
Are you sure?
AW: Almost (laughs). If tomorrow morning Arsenal says goodbye and thank you, I can’t swear that I won’t keep working, keep living my passion. But probably not in England.
Educating rather than coaching?
AW: I don’t want the will to educate to be opposed to the will to win. That makes the educator sound like an idiot. Any manager’s approach must be to educate. One of the beauties of our job is the power to influence the course of a man’s life in a positive way. You and me have been lucky enough to meet people who believed in us and led us forward. The streets are full of talented people but who didn’t have the luck of finding someone who placed their faith in them. I can be the one that facilitates life, that give an opportunity.
And when, during a game, you’re confronted to an opposing manager for whom only the result matters, and not the means…
AW: I’ve been called naïf on that level. In any case, there’s only one way to live your life. You have to conform to the values you believe to be important. If I don’t respect them, I would be unhappy. And in any case, I’ve always been a man who was completely committed to the cause. With my good and my bad sides.
If you had to pick one moment in your career?
AW: Arriving in London with complete scepticism. My first league title, my first double. Going from “Arsène Who” to the one who became a pioneer. Being the first non-British coach to succeed in England.
And if there was a pain?
AW: Being questioned on everything that has been done after every single loss, despite the consistency we’ve put in our work at the highest level. The immediate “chuck it all out” reaction. You have to find a balance between your masochistic capability to endure what you’re being put through and the pleasure of accomplishment. Today, my masochistic capability must be bigger so as to express my passion. I’ve reached that point. I do many things that make me suffer.
Is that why you stay away from the media?
AW: Of course. Do you know someone who wakes up in the morning and says: Hey, I’d like to get fifty whiplashes.
You say you’ve been described as naive. Do you not prefer to be called an idealist?
AW: A guy said: “There is only one way to live with the idea of death, it is to try and transform the present into art”. That works with what we’ve just been talking about.
Art is not necessarily a source of universal beauty. Some works can be popular, or be shocking depending on the relation one has to beauty.
AW: I chose a team sport. There is a kind of magic when men unite their energies to express a common idea. That is when sport becomes beautiful. The unhappiness of man comes when he finds himself alone to fight against the problems he must face. Especially in modern society. Team sport has a value, that of being able to be ahead of its time. You can play with eleven players from eleven different countries and offer a collective work. Today’s sports can show what the world of tomorrow will be. We can share fabulous emotions with people that you can’t talk to. That is not yet possible in daily society. When tennis becomes the Davis Cup, it carries something it otherwise doesn’t. Same with golf and the Ryder Cup. People feel it. The vibration is there.
Could you have been coach in an individual sport?
AW: I don’t think so. Going to the bottom of an individual, finding out what motivates him also interests me greatly. But I was raised in team sports and my psyche was built around that. Being the coach of a single athlete would have frustrated me. That’s linked to my education. In my village, we only played football and basketball.
Does the fact that you were a professional footballer, but not a great player, give you more leniency, patience regarding what your team can accomplish?
AW: You can explain that by the relationship with frustration of a player who didn’t reach what he was striving for. Anything could have happened, however my career would have panned out, I would have stayed in football. Football was obviousness to me. A bit of a crazy obviousness. Sometimes, when I was 24-25 years old I thought: shit if I can’t play football anymore I’ll commit suicide! I was thinking: what is the point of life after it?
AW: Seriously. I tried for a long time to understand how you could be that stupid. Simply because I was raised in a bar-restaurant that was the HQ of a football club. We only spoke about football. The guys sorted out the teams on Wednesday and Tuesday to play on Sunday. I was barely walking and already watching them, listening to them. And I thought: Wow, they’re going to play him on the left wing, well its going to be another tough one.
Did you get involved quickly in the discussions?
AW: Oh yes. By the time I was 4 or 5 I started being conscious of them and I began joining in when I was 9-10. I was locked in a culture where, unconsciously, I thought football was important in life. Because people only spoke about that.
How did you become more secure, reassured about your anguished as a 24-25 year old?
AW: Actually it happened gradually. When I was 25-26 I went to give a conference in Mulhouse with a mate who was a technical advisor. He offered me to train coaches. The transformation process was gradually being put into place. Then, my manager at Strasbourg Max Hild told me: “Come to the academy with me”. I went there and I became his assistant. He quickly became first-team manager, so I was promoted as Academy Director when I was 30. At 32 years old I dedicated myself to it, I stopped playing. I didn’t have time to ask myself any existential questions. Ambitions adapt to physical potential to start off. I knew I could play football forever.
Do you think about the end of your career as a manager? A new small death. You’ve just turned 66.
AW: I completely ignore that question. I’m kind of like the 34 year old guy who’s still playing. He has a bad game and everybody says “Time to hang them up mate!”. I don’t even ask myself the question of what I will do after because it will be a big shock. Much harder than switching from player to coach. Because this time, it will be about switching from hyperactivity to emptiness. That’s why I refuse to consider that question. I’m like a guy who’s not far from his goal, who keeps going and ignores the wall.
Now if I tell you Erik you have 24 hours to live. Will you imagine the blade that will slit your throat – during all of your remaining 24 hours – or will you try to live them to the fullest? It’s the question of the ending of life really.
Are you inspired by the successful example of Alex Ferguson who suddenly retired at 71 because his distressed wife requested it from him after the passing of her sister?
AW: For me at that level Ferguson is an example. First off, he always found a way to renew himself, to evolve. He didn’t stay frozen in success. That’s a quality of his I appreciate. He knew how to constantly challenge himself. Even if he did it instinctively. But he had other passions. He like horses. Wine. He knows red wine better than I do. I met him recently and I said: “Alex, don’t you miss it?”. He said “not at all”. I was disappointed and comforted at the same time. It’s a reason to hope.
You don’t have other passions?
AW: No. That’s where my anxiety comes from. I’m not Ferguson. I don’t have a substitute and I’m not interested in looking back. Like writing a book on what happened to me. I live it as a suffering when former players come and see me and they’re not fully happy. Being introduced as Mr. X, former Arsenal player, and not for what he is today, that hurts. Being what you were is a suffering. I hope that in my life after football, I can be something else than the former Arsenal manager. Coach kids. Be useful.
Why do you not keep anything from your past?
AW: It worries me a bit. If you come to my place, you could never guess I’m a football manager. If you ask me where my last FA Cup medal is, I don’t know. I think I gave it to the team doctor or the kit man.
It’s paradoxical for the manager of a club that has an acute sense of history and passing on.
AW: I’m very interested in the history of others. Mine I’m much less interested in. Because I know it and not going through it allows me to forget all the stupid things I’ve done. You avoid the feeling of guiltiness. I always found it a bit pathetic that people would tour their own museums and talk about all the good they’ve done in their lives.
Who else other than you will leave a mark of your career?
AW: My club will do it very well. Media are so developed nowadays that they will tell a story about me, even if it won’t necessarily be “my” story. The real one is probably more interesting because a lot of things are not known. My father, for example, used to collect everything that was written about me. Sometimes, I fell like I’m betraying him. Because I’m not interested in that. Maybe that will change. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll think: my friend, it’s time to pause and reflect on what’s happened.
Tell to transmit better?
AW: The most beautiful thing about my job is the power to pass on and influence the lives of others. In a positive way.
How do you feel about being alive and there being a statue of you, like Thierry Henry and Sir Alex Ferguson?
AW: I feel a bit uneasy about it. I prefer having to fight every day to convince people I’m doing a decent job. Nowadays, questions are asked very quickly of you. What’s changes in our job is that the accolades you may accumulate don’t protect you. We have to fight to be respected.
Is it harder for a modern manager to convince than to win?
AW: To win you have to convince. Society has switched from verticality to horizontality. In the 60’s a coach would say “lads we’re going to do it this way” nobody contested it. Now you have to convince first. The player is rich. The characteristic of the rich man is the need to convince him. Because he has a status. A way of thinking. People nowadays are informed. Therefore they have an opinion. And they think their opinion is right. They don’t necessarily share my opinion, so I have to convince them.
It took you some time at the beginning at Arsenal to get the club and its fans to follow your principle.
AW: Arsenal is a club with tradition that is not afraid of innovating.
Because you and David Dein, back then vice-president of Arsenal, but above-all your friend changed traditions.
AW: They were not scared of following me. That was a true act of courage.
They gave you time first and foremost. You’re starting your twentieth year at the head of Arsenal.
AW: Time is a real luxury. I give myself credit for one thing: I always treated Arsenal as if it belonged to me. I’ve been criticised for it. Because I don’t spend enough. I’m not carefree enough. I give myself credit for having the courage to apply my ideas and to fight for them. I can understand that people don’t agree. My great pride will be, the day I leave, that I’m leaving a good squad, a healthy situation and a club capable of performing in the future. I could have thought: I’m 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 a great club. Real Madrid didn’t win the title for 21 years before Di Stefano’s arrival in 1953 after all.
Today at Real Madrid, you can be crowned champion and be sacked anyway…
AW: They’ve entered the modern path. They need new faces. The addiction to headlines. For me, consistency in the results depends on the cohesion within the club. Throwing everything out, all the time only makes sense if you have hyper unlimited revenue. Then you can win. If not you’re done.
You speak of consistency and patience. When you were manager at Monaco, you were rather volcanic.
AW: I’ve matured. I went to Japan. I learned to control myself. I have a hypersensitivity that I’ve learned to master. I really started coaching a 33, I’m 66 now. I had to adapt to survive.
Would your health have worsened if you hadn’t?
AW: No. I’ve always been prepared to stupidly pay the price with my health, but the price of survival in this business. Because I realised that I could cause irreparable damage after matches.
Your stint in Japan where you coached Nagoya Grampus Eight (1994 – 1996) changed you profoundly.
AW: The chairman, Shoichiro Toyoda, told me he wanted to make Nagoya the greatest club in Japan and in the world within 100 years. That negates the pressure of immediacy in a fabulous way. What becomes a loss if you project your destiny on a century? I also found that idea extremely generous. Only being a conveyor belt in history, as a part of a movement that is much larger than you are. Being part of something that is beyond you. Unfortunately, we live too often with the idea that the world is going to stop after us. That is not humanity. There is a form of scientism in that. Being the carrier of an always-improving destiny for humanity. We can question that today…
That’s the least you can say…
AW: Nagoya questioned it (laughs). They haven’t made much progress since I’ve left them. It’s only been twenty years though. Actually, Toyoda is back and they come back to see me for advice. I’m still very close to them.
You can read the full thing in French right here.