Sunday, February 24, 2008

you ask, he answers


Yesterday I renewed my British Council Library membership and celebrated by checking out, among other things, the December 2007 edition of FourFourTwo. Football experts will know that this is British football's matey, laddish monthly chronicle. Those with good memories will instantly recall, too, that this particular edition bears an alarming picture of a smiling Arsène Wenger who, the inner pages will reveal, is in fact a (money) plant on the part of Nike and one of their new coaching initiatives.

We can look at Arsène Lupin instead.

I am a big fan of the 'Arsène knows' maxim, mostly because of its powers to offend non-Gooners. I admire Wenger and his teams. I think he is intelligent and eloquent, much like Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are, in their own distinct ways. [I swear that is not a backhanded compliment.] In the absence of patriarchal club owners who run their teams as they would their families or their shady businesses, people like Ferguson and Wenger must necessarily occupy the centre of attention in English football's corporate power structures.

As a cultural outsider who is, to all intents and purposes, an Anglophile, Wenger's perspective is valued to an immoderate degree by his adoring populace, and others besides. His opinions are worthy of attention, even when he is being disingenuous, and he is that very often. I suspect it may have given more than one outraged football fan a moment's pause when, contrary to the reservations of practically every club bigwig who was asked their opinion about the 39th Game issue, Wenger actually claimed he thought it would be a good idea. Flabbergasting, from a man who one would assume to have thought of the physical wear-and-tear, the mathematical integrity of the league, and every other good argument against the proposal long before the rest of us had. Might he have seen something there that we were missing? His reasoning appeared simple to a fault: he said he thought fans in other countries deserved a chance to see their teams in action.

In this interview with FourFourTwo, presumably conducted at least two months before the Scudamore storm broke, Wenger was asked the inevitable question about the un-Englishness of his teams, and he said, wisely, that he would fight against every notion of a quota. Then he was asked, by a reader from Birmingham, about whether he thought football had lost its moral compass. His answer was:

Football has a worldwide responsibility because every big game in the Premier League is watched by 500 to 700 milllion people - sometimes a billion people. Imagine a kid sitting in India or in South Africa watching Wayne Rooney or Fabregas - the kind of influence these people have in the world is highly important. Also, I believe that in our countries that have such a history of war, multi-cultural teams can show a harmonious way to live and achieve things together. Sport has a responsibility on that front. [...]

I'm not certain whether he's lying about this, or about his discomfort with the idea of managing England because he "wouldn't know which anthem to sing" if his team ever played France [an opinion he repeats in this interview]. I get the feeling he is completely sincere about both. He is contemptuous of international football. '...because they destroyed it,' he says. 'Take Russia: once it was one country and now it's 21. Yugoslavia was one and now is six. As a result the level has dropped. Then you add countries like Andorra, Faroe Islands and San Marino and suddenly three games out of four are of no interest.'

Perhaps he believes himself incapable of the collective anti-nationalist meritocracy he seems to envision for the sporting world, but holds out hope for his charges and for all the kiddums in India and South Africa losing every sense of place and time as they watch Rooney and Fabregas being one-size-fits-all idols. He makes a clear distinction between what he perceives as 'big' and 'small' concerns - one presumes it's perfectly alright for coaches of San Marino or Kazakhstan to be of a different nationality, since they're not big enough to be awkward about their nationhood, anyway. There is a practical sense in his making this distinction, as far as the coach issue goes: countries trying to develop their football culture will feel justified in adopting ways and workers from already-established countries in a way that the big guns might not. But this isn't what Wenger is advocating - in spite of fearing his own nationalism, he seems unwilling to tolerate it in others.
There is a certain kind of libertarianism that believes that the breakdown of social controls will allow for new, less unjust ways for entities to relate to each other. I don’t think it applies successfully in sport. Wenger opposes the nationalism that creates divisions in sport, but he does it without considering the other sources of power that divide people. Money, for one. Does falling on the right side of that particular divide allow him to ignore it entirely? Is it, in fact, possible to see the glorious rise of a fandom sans frontiers without seeing how very imbalanced it would be?
I find this so frankly ridiculous a thought, the idea that the EPL going to the ends of the world to play their 39th game is "for the fans," that when Wenger came out and said just that, I did a double-take, and walked myself back through his proclamations, trying to find evidence that he is Ligue 1 counterintelligence of some order. It's an appealing sort of notion, but if it isn't the case, then I'm going to hope that everyone who says 'Arsène Knows' does so with at least a tinge of irony.


Does he know, however, to beat Milan? I believe he does. I believe that Arsène does know enough to take on the entire establishment that is propping up this particular Milan team - laboratories, tactical traditions, at least a century of collective European experience on the pitch, it's absurd to to suggest that there's anything so simple as a one-on-one coach-off at work here - but it appears, more than any other tie in this round so far, to come down to the uncertainties of the night.

Inter, on the other hand (where my face is currently resting, dejected). Are unspeakable.


Following on the last post about Paolo Maldini: the Telegraph did not stop there. Henry Winter, writing the day after the game at the Emirates, said

Paolo Maldini was particularly magnificent, embodying Milan's refusal to yield a centimetre.

Even in the cynical world of modern football, an opponent's brilliance can be respected. Even a man whose job it is to destroy can be saluted. At half-time, Maldini was embraced by Emmanuel Adebayor, the Arsenal striker he was paid to frustrate. At the final whistle, the great Italian defender was applauded from the field by Arsenal's admiring supporters. Maldini responded with a smile of appreciation and a brief wave before disappearing down the tunnel.

Even at 39 [...] Maldini looked like he had just stepped from the catwalk at Milan fashion week.

I'm glad he's getting his adulation from a crowd that generally finds it convenient to hate Italian football, but this is just suspicious. Does no one have anything to say against him?

... I'm a little afraid of the answer to that. Ruud Gullit has a 'My Perfect XI' at the back of the FourFourTwo, and predictably, over a third come from il grande Milan: Rijkaard at central midfield, Baresi at centre-back (Gullit plays a flat back four), Marco 'the man' van Basten in front, and Maldini at left-back. "Position for position one of the greatest players ever," he says about him.

About van Basten he says, "He was also a vicious player. If defenders tried to kick him, he would kick them back. He knew how to look after himself on the pitch." Small comfort for a man whose career was hacked away by the time he was 28? But oddly true to life, even for someone who has only ever known him as a YouTube superhero and the really unpleasant man who manages Holland.

Gullit's pick to play up front along side van Basten? van Basten's new boss, Johann Cruyff. There is a very funny novel in there somewhere. I'm sure of it.


All this talk of defenders and hair [for we talk not of defenders without talking of their hair] and Ursus' comments have made me want to write about Alessandro Nesta. Count this as prior warning, Martha.


I still need a job. Recently discovered: Mills & Boon have an India branch. Could I write pulp romance? We have been reading a slew of their ghastly novellas of late. Like Baldrick hoping to marry into the aristocracy, I could look into bringing the system down from the inside.


Abby said...

Oh, but I love Arsene anyway. There's just something that seems so out of time with him. And, well, it is my team after all...

Martha said...

Ah, Christ. Seriously? Is this really necessary? And, if it is, could you simply combine point IV and V? That I could maybe handle.

[I have to read the rest of the points later tonight, I was somehow drawn downward in the post, and now I see why.]

Martha said...

Ok, I've read the rest. I won't ask why Inter are unspeakable, but would really like to know who the "they" are at whole feet Arsene is laying the breakup the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. I really, really can't wait to hear. I mean, what on earth?

Is there any suggestion in the bits you didn't excerpt? Useful antecedents?

ursus arctos said...

Well, I'm not as polite.
Why are Inter unspeakable?

And you could certainly write romance novels, but my suggestion would be that you get a piece of the billion plus USD sloshing around the Indian Premier (Cricket) League. Surely they could afford to send a small portion of the total your way in order to ensure that they benefit from exposure to your high-powered global fanbase.

I think I'm going with Mumbai, btw. They're going to be called the Monkeys, aren't they . . .

roswitha said...

@Abby: I know, and I see why his difference from the rest of his milieu deserves celebration, I really do - but the realities of it are increasingly impossible to ignore.

@ Martha: 1. This is the best idea ever. Nesta is the perfect M&B hero - old (but not too old), rich, bad-tempered and hot. I'm sure he'll say and do all the right things when he discovers his virginal secretary is in love with him, or his grandmother's new nurse is a gorgeous redhead who suffered cruel parental neglect in her childhood.
2. No, that's actually the whole of it. Maybe he, like the rest of us, believes Sepp Blatter is the root of all ills? What will interest you even more is to learn that elsewhere in the interview he says something like, "...were it not for sport, I would certainly have gone into international affairs." Wow, Arsene, so much to be thankful for.

@ Ursus: Because that game against Liverpool was an excruciating enactment of self-parody. I was cruelly disappointed because outraged as I am by their crazy dominance of Serie A, I was (am) really hoping to see them enjoy a long run in Europe this time. You want them to show the world once and for all that they're more than an arbitrary grouping of special players -- and on the night they fail. You want Matrix to prove himself more than a thoughtless lout -- and he fails. You want Zlatan to turn up under pressure -- and dang it, he fails. With any other team I liked I would be troubling deaf heaven with my bootless cries re: bad luck. But when it *keeps* happening to Inter it slips into the realm of the ineffably stupid. *kicks something small and furry*

And as if that litany of known faults weren't enough, they have to go and lose players to hideous injury on pitch, almost as if they were Milan in disguise. Bah.

Chuckling at your IPL suggestion. It's slightly embarrassing to nurse a perennial soft spot for the underdog but still be tied by local loyalties to Indian domestic cricket's equivalent of Manchester United, but if I get over my fogey-ish averions to Twenty20 tournaments I will be rooting for Mumbai as well [although, given the current climate, don't you think 'Your Mama's Mumbai' would be more appropriate? *g*]. Given my current location I might as well look into the Calcutta Knights or whatever they're being called, but, again, it would be a bit like a United fan rooting for Liverpool, and that would also be unspeakable.

Jen said...

again, it would be a bit like a United fan rooting for Liverpool, and that would also be unspeakable.

*raises hand sheepishly*

(Um, I blame Xabi Alonso, mostly.)


I keep meaning to write something about the 39th game thing, and failing, but what it boils down to for me is this: Much as I would love to see my team play, live and in person, I would love it infinitely more if I was actually there, in their home stadium, rather than, say, BMO Field in Toronto, which is charming in its own way, but is certainly no Anfield or Old Trafford. So I have to disagree with Arsene, because the fact that it would fuck up the logistics of the season so badly outweighs the possible benefit, in my mind. (Unless you believe it's all about the money, which clearly, it is.)


Also: Yes, you should definitely write about Nesta. :)

Brian said...

Roswitha, if you're looking to split the labor I would absolutely collaborate with you on a football romance novel. Derby Day, by the bestselling authors of The Golden Boot... She was a simple Islington shop girl who'd never seen the Eiffel Tower. He was an international football star who stopped in to buy roses for his mother. The saga of their love would span continents and represent a significant spike in the sale of luxury chocolates.

I'm thinking about an ending in which he somehow has to score a hat trick in the World Cup final to prove to her that he loves her. She's watching from a hospital bed, understandably but mistakenly convinced that she's been betrayed. What do you think?

Nags said...

Its amazing how interested you are in sports :) Good going :)Though I really prefer ur writing in the other one :)

Spangly Princess said...

I think we should have a football/romance novel writing contest! I tend towards the Georgette Heyer end of the genre.

She is the secret unacknowledged daughter of Arrigo Sacchi. He looks down on her for her inability to understand the offside rule (and inferior birth). She falls in love with his hair. She conquers him with her unshakeable assurance and witty banter, but loves him too much to ruin his career by getting together with him (she feels she will demean him with her poverty but is too independent to accept his cash). Then Sacchi acknowledges her, equips her with a private income, she learns the offside rule to prove her love for him, and they buy a glamourous mansion on Lake Como.