James Lawton: The contradictions of Arsène Wenger: an exhilarating winner... but a sour loser

'Wenger should have spoken out against attacks on the spirit of the game'
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The Independent Football

A high wind is tearing at El Madrigal stadium where tonight the football destiny of Arsène Wenger is so finely balanced. It means that, as the palm trees bend this way and that, you are bound to speculate on the turbulence that is going on inside the erudite Frenchman who yet again has let down his guard.

The ugliness of his confrontation with the Tottenham head coach, Martin Jol, is certainly not something easily blown away into the white-capped sea.

It is as tangible as the smell of the salt in the air and the nearby fish cannery and inevitably it deepens the sense of the contradictions and the tension building in one of the most remarkable coaches - and men - the game has ever seen.

For some exhilarating weeks, Wenger, with the help of his bravely reforged young team, had been at the heart of an extraordinary charm offensive. He had never been more philosophical or impassioned. His sophisticated view of football and life seemed to lap effortlessly beyond the borders of his own ambition. As Arsenal cut through Real Madrid and Juventus, he talked of leaving a little bit of his soul at Highbury. Here, was a man who might just be overhauling the very roots of his football existence. He even, with huge irony, talked about the need to attack the curse of diving that has so undermined the game.

Then came Robbie Keane's Tottenham goal, which could denude Arsenal of Champions' League football in the first season in their new stadium - if things do not go well against the stealthy Villarreal tonight or in Paris in the final next month.

Then we saw the other side of Wenger, the one that whips up as suddenly as the boisterous winds which welcomed him and his team here. We saw the man who hates to lose, the man whose value system can crumble as dramatically as an avalanche if fate is not to his liking.

When the consensus was gathered in yesterday the overwhelming view was that Wenger, so close to what might be his crowning triumph, had let himself down badly when he insulted Jol so profoundly with the charge that he was a liar, and that his team were cheats.

The incident has already been analysed exhaustively, and the dominating professional view is that Spurs did not act unreasonably when Emmanuel Eboué and Gilberto Silva collided and the close-up referee, Mike Riley, indicated plainly that he had no concern for the health of either player. Those are the details, but the significance of Wenger's reaction flies so far beyond the question of who was right and wrong in the split seconds allowed for response on the field.

In his bitter eruption Wenger has doubtlessly complicated any neutral reaction to the possibility of his landing the greatest triumph of his superb career in the next few weeks.

One distinguished old pro, who, like many of his contemporaries, worries that so many fundamental values of the game are being flushed away on a tide of all-consuming self-interest, sums up the dilemma quite briskly. He says: "There is no doubt an Arsenal triumph in the Champions' League would be a wonderful gift for English football; it would remind everyone that the beautiful game can also be a winning game. But then I also believe that Wenger, who everyone in football should admire for his knowledge and his ability to recognise greatness in young players, could also have given the English game a gift of equal importance over the last few years. That would have been if he had taken a lead in being honest about what was happening in football, if he had spoken out against all the attacks on the spirit of the game, some of the most notable coming from his own players."

That was the terrible indictment Wenger inflicted on himself when he raged on the Highbury touchline. That was the breathtaking oversight he made when he charged Jol with evasion and lying. It was as though he was pressing a replay button on a long list of his own offences.

Here was the man who thought that the dive of Robert Pires against Portsmouth to win a penalty and preserve Arsenal's brilliant unbeaten run of two years ago was a simple matter of adjudication by a referee. It was not, after the briefest examination of the video, a matter for one of the most influential football men in the game - not a situation that screamed for a moral view, someone to step back and say that we had gone far enough down the road of deceit.

The Pires case will not go away - because it was, ultimately, flagrant. It required the Arsenal player not to overreact to contact, not even to feign contact, but to seek it out and then go down in the most transparent way.

When Wenger upbraided Jol last Saturday he turned away from all that recent glory and charm and hope and took us back to some of the grimiest episodes in modern English football.

Unwittingly, he recalled the time of "Pizzagate", when he saw no evil, heard no evil when Sir Alex Ferguson was splattered by food thrown by Arsenal players, and it was left to the hierarchies of two of the greatest clubs in England to make some kind of feeble accommodation. When Patrick Vieira, in his first highly physical impact on the English game, fell foul of officials Wenger's public position could scarcely have been more partisan. He warned officials that if they were not more careful both Vieira and his team-mate Emmanuel Petit would be packing their bags for home.

When half his team swarmed around Ruud van Nistelrooy, spewing hatred that would have done credit to some street mob, Wenger's response was to name the Dutchman as one of the game's great cheats. It was an opinion that might not have lacked some support, but the problem was it was so arbitrary, so detached from the wider view that you might expect from one of the great men of the game, and, of course, it deflected any need to pass judgement on behaviour that still stands out so depressingly as a prime symbol of eroded respect.

No, maybe these are memories that should not be carried on this high wind as Arsenal strive to deliver one of the great achievements of the English game. But then who put them there? It was Wenger. Not the Wenger of superlative achievement, not the Merlin of the game, but the one-eyed Wenger, the one who made a verdict on his rival Jol so harsh, so intemperately delivered, that the Tottenham manager deserved some kind of reward for forbearance.

None of this, of course, detaches us from the hope that tonight we will see the best of Wenger and his team. There is, after all, no new fault line in the man. The central contradiction has always been there. His vision of how the game should be played, his ability to groom players in that way, has always been accompanied by an unwillingness to look beyond the interests of himself and his players.

The charge can be made with equal force against his great rival Ferguson, and perhaps neither of them are currently in danger of surpassing the boiling self-regard of Jose Mourinho. However, this is supposed to Wenger's time, as 1999 was supremely Ferguson's, and the instinct here is as it was up the coast in Barcelona, when Manchester United expressed the will of their manager so extraordinarily in those unforgettable last minutes at the Nou Camp.

The desire is to praise rather than bury Wenger as he strives for the penultimate triumph in a superb campaign. If the searching passes of Juan Roman Riquelme do damage to Arsenal's composure, if the yellow submarine of Manuel Pelligrini stifles the brilliance of Thierry Henry, the regret will not be cheap in all those who value football most for its spirit and its beauty.

You might even say that football owes Wenger one abiding triumph, one supreme statement about the value of playing in a certain way. But then there is another debt, and this is one against the name of the man wading in frustration who called Martin Jol a liar. The hunch here is that tonight he will be a step closer to being confirmed as a champion of the game, but will that quite settle the account? Not if you believe that English football right now needs a single truth as much as any amount of silverware.