October might as well be Arsène Wenger month. This past weekend, he celebrated his 67th birthday and two weeks ago, his 20th anniversary of managing my beloved Arsenal Football Club—an English soccer team (technically, he was appointed in September, but his first match was October 12, so you get the idea). Us fans showered him with praise and adulation—on social media, at the stadium, and anywhere else we could—to thank him for all he has done for the club. This was all for a French man who has spent nearly a third of his existence managing a football club in North London.
I have spent more than half of my life cheering on Arsenal, and by extension, Arsène. They both came to me 12 years ago in an unexpected way. A friend of mine returned home with a red jersey adorned with O2 on the front—the then-sponsor of the club—and Henry on the back with the number 14. As an avid soccer player in search of a team to watch, I thought it wise to try out my friend’s mystery team.
Truthfully, I do not remember what I initially thought of the team. What I do know is that: a) it was a weird coincidence that the manager of a team called Arsenal is named Arsène and b) from that point, there was no turning back; I became a self-proclaimed Gooner (the name the fans have given themselves based off one of Arsenal’s nicknames, the Gunners).
I was not yet a fan when the team was going through its golden years. I arrived shortly after the invincible 2003-04 squad completed an entire Premier League season undefeated (one season after Wenger himself said it would not be shocking if his team went the whole campaign unbeaten). Over my tenure as an across-the-pond spectator, I have experienced the highs and lows that come with being a diehard fan.
I saw our goalie Jens Lehmann get sent off early in the 2006 Champions League Final against Barcelona, only for Arsenal to score first, but ultimately lose 2-1. I saw the definition of humiliation in an 8-2 defeat at the hands of the hated Manchester United. And I saw the departures of three of our core players (Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri, and former captain, now snake Cesc Fabregas) who I thought would return us to glory.
I speak of “us” and “we” as if I am part of a team whose home stadium is over 4,000 miles from mine. Yet, I feel a connection to them more so than most things. And the thread that ties everything together is the man himself, Arsène Wenger.
Here is a man who came to England in the late 1990s and was one of the only foreign managers in the entire league. The papers printed “Arsène who?”, the same question I asked myself when I started following the club. Now, you would be branded a fool if you called yourself a soccer fan and asked that question.
As long as I have backed Arsenal, Wenger has been there. Players have come and gone (some to my dismay, some to my pleasure) and there has been a circus of other managers rotating in and out of other teams in the league. In the last 20 seasons, Arsène is all that remains. He has stayed when bigger teams have come knocking at the door (I’m looking at you Real Madrid and the French National team). He stayed when the team made its move from Highbury to its current Emirates stadium, a move that cost a fortune in a time when other teams were emptying their pockets to court the highest level of talent. He relied on his faith in young players to survive the rough waters, and we relied on him and his loyalty to steer the ship in the right direction.
Of course, his reign as manager would not come without criticism. I myself have been guilty of armchair managing over the years. As much as I like to doubt his starting lineup, player purchases, and (often) late substitutions, time and time again he has proven that Arsène knows best. However, this does not stop other more vocal fans from lambasting him with jarring boos and banners that read “Wenger Out”. The pressure of managing a top-flight team as celebrated as Arsenal is endless.
As of late, he has come under fire from fans, especially when the team comes out with a poor result. Some criticize his stubbornness to adhere to his tactics rather than adapt to what the opponent is showing him. Others firmly believe it is time for him to move on. This idea was epitomized by the video that surfaced showing several fans heckling Wenger as he boarded a train after a 3-2 loss. But in true Wenger fashion, he shrugged it off by saying that fans shout things like that in the stadium too and that he does not enjoy the fans being upset after a loss.
Granted, he has said before that fan reception may have been a little harsh, but the man rarely responds more harshly than that. He almost never lashes out, and when he does, we can all enjoy it (see: infamous shove of the arrogant Jose Mourinho). You can feel that he genuinely wants what we all want: for Arsenal to be successful. And without him, I am not sure I would be able to have seen the highs that I have.
I remember Wenger’s wry smile as he hinted at the impending signing of midfield maestro Mesut Özil. I remember the raised arms as the nine year trophy drought was ended with the 2014 Football Association Cup victory. And I am seeing a team that has not finished outside the top four,nor below our most hated rivals, Tottenham, since Wenger took over.
No one can know where the team will go after he decides to move on. We have seen teams make managerial transitions (sorry Manchester United fans) and capitulate under the pressures of past success. But, Wenger has had the future in mind. His penchant to give youth players a chance and purchase players who have the potential for long-term impact has set up the team well for the post-Wenger era. It just will not be the same man in charge.
While I was not there to witness his arrival at Arsenal, I suppose I’ll be there to see him leave. A statue in front of the stadium to commemorate his time is practically guaranteed. Whether you have been a part of the “Wenger Out” brigade or a steadfast supporter since the beginning, he certainly deserves respect. And on that day that he decides to call it quits, us fans will do as we did this October: thank him, not for the wins, but for living, breathing, and being Arsenal Football Club.