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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Birthday Boy Wenger

Happy birthday, Arsene Wenger.

On this, his 60th birthday, he planned to leave the Champagne on ice. Nothing to celebrate, no parties. Just another quiet, diligent day of total immersion in football affairs, a club Annual General Meeting, plenty of football talk, study, intensity and reflection in the life of the sport's most Buddha-like, private and enigmatic man.

And maybe an evening at home in Totteridge watching television - football again, of course, but this time from the new Europa League.

He will not speak of bus passes or retirement. He rarely speaks of anything else but football. He is a man dedicated to his one undying occupational love affair.

For him, football is not only a job. It is the food of his life and it gives him romance, the source of his flights of fancy, his dreams and his ambitions.

He has been manager of Arsenal for 13 years and more - a record - but little is known about him in any real depth. He has managed to keep private his private life.

Although we think we know him well, from what everyone can see in the stadium, at the training ground and in front of the media, we hardly know him at all.

We know he is always late - up to an hour or more sometimes - for many of his appointments and keeps people waiting. We know his football beliefs.

We know his delight in the purity of perfect geometric passing moves, attacks that crackle with the electric fusion he learned of and studied for his degree at Strasbourg University, where he also gained a master's in economics.

We know of his passion and his temper when he is enflamed by football matters, bad results, poor performances, disagreeable decisions by referees and violent tackles.

We know of his dry humour when he is in a playful mood, toying with news conferences and group interviews.

We know he follows world affairs and watches the news, applies his intelligence to understand the money markets, patterns of footballer migration across continents and that he studies the sciences of physical well-being that underpin his teams' athleticism, pace, strength and durability.

We know his first Arsenal players thought he was a geography teacher who had taken a wrong turn to end up at Highbury - and ended up teaching them stretching exercises and giving them diets that extended their careers while he prepared his spending plans for the French revolution that was to transform Arsenal from a football club as English as suet pudding into a cosmopolitan collection of men who delivered Afro-European football with a suave style that has bewitched London's chattering classes. What would Wenger have done with Charlie George?

A man for all seasons | But who will follow Arsene?

He has said he will carry on working for as long as he can, certainly beyond 2011 when his current contract expires. He is sure to be asked about this at the AGM where the atmosphere is likely to be very different to that last May, when a few disgruntled shareholders dared to ask questions loaded with personal prejudice and some with spite.

This week, he said: "From now on, I have to assess (myself) every two years because, the way I work, it's hands-on - it's not to delegate a lot - so it is hard work. As you get older, everybody will tell you there is a massive contrast between how you look and how you feel.

"I would want to work as long as I lived but adapted to my potential. It doesn't always need to be physical work. Sometimes, it can be more intellectual... you cannot be 75 on the pitch."

Age, he has said, is a state of mind: "People at 40 can be young physically, but old mentally and, in this job, it helps that you never have any certainty. You always question and you always have to question yourself. I believe that's the basis of staying young in your head."

These are the words of a scientist, a thinker. He comes from Strasbourg and he is an Alsatian, one of those Europeans whose origins and history blend Teutonic strength with French flair, and sometimes a touch of Swiss solitude.

Think of the charm, humour and singularity of Roger Federer, from nearby Basel, and there is a kindred spirit.

Both are capable of tantrums, now mostly controlled - though Wenger does still have his Basil Fawlty moments in extreme anxiety on the touchline, and both are devoted to fulfilling their talents in a way that satisfies their craving for perfection: in style as well as substance.

Wenger may have studied as a scientist, but he has used science to serve his art. And though that combination may have made him Arsenal's most successful and greatest manager, it has yet to propel him beyond football.

He remains enigmatic, a reclusive student of his football, a brilliant coach and exceptional manager, but not a man whose wit or wisdom has expanded beyond sport.

And what will Arsenal do when he is gone? He has built a club around him in his style and, to some extent, his image.

Surely, it would be impossible to find an Englishman to follow him. Is there a Wenger protégé, perhaps Thierry Henry, as he has suggested, who has the attributes to carry on the project?

On his 60th birthday, it is the big question: who follows Arsene? And it would be his best present to himself if he found the answer...

Tim Collings, Goal.com UK

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