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.
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.