Breaking down borders the key as Wenger promotes virtues of Arsenal's 'mini-nation'

Gunners' manager gives Eurocrats a lesson in integration.
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Many people feel that Arsène Wenger looks out of place in the football manager's dug-out - too professorial, too well-dressed, too bookish, too cool, too serene.

Watching the Arsenal manager perform in a rather different setting - in a packed committee room in Brussels, debating the role of football in the integration of Europe - few minds would have changed. Here, "Professor" Wenger (University of Highbury) was in his element: relaxed, fluent, funny, wise, well-informed and thoughtful.

Can football help to promote a sense of European identity? Yes, Prof Wenger told his audience of politicians, Eurocrats and sports administrators. In fact, it already has.

"Football, in this respect, is ahead of politics... the fact that there are so many players from other European countries performing in Britain has destroyed many prejudices and preconceptions. The image of a Frenchman in Britain has traditionally been an arrogant loud-mouth, who collapses at the first real test... English fans now know what Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira are like. They know that these prejudices are fallacious."

One day, Wenger said - maybe not so far distant - there will be a real European league, with first and second divisions. Promotion to this élite, he suggested, would be from "regional" leagues, in other words the British, French, Italian, etc national leagues.

There might even be a day, Wenger said, when a Europe football team took on Brazil or China. But this was probably far distant. "To my mind, Europe is not about imposing a common culture across the continent. It is about accepting that we can do many things better together, without losing our sense of national or regional identity."

In the meantime, he suggested, his success in blending 14 nationalities into one all-conquering team at Highbury - a "mini-nation, the nation of Arsenal" - could serve as a lesson for the EU.

"The problem of the European Union, politically, I think, is that we have all decided to work together, just like the different nationalities in a football team, but we are not successful in communicating with one another.

"We remain very separate. Communication is essential."

Wenger was taking part in a three-way debate at the European Union's Committee of the Regions in Brussels. He was invited partly because he is one of the most successful, and high-profile, examples of migrant labour in Europe, partly because he was born (in 1949) in the partly German-speaking French province of Alsace. The debate was sponsored by the association for the promotion of all things Alsatian, from wine to football managers.

The other main participants were another native of Alsace, Marc Keller, formerly of West Ham United, now coach of Racing Strasbourg and - entertainingly - Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now a Green Euro MP but still best known as the leader of the left-wing student uprising in Paris in May 1968.

Cohn-Bendit, a German brought up in France, is a huge football fan. Until recently, he played for a bar team in Frankfurt, wearing the No "68" shirt.

The evening was adorned by a number of exchanges between Wenger (a 19-year-old football trainee in 1968) and Cohn-Bendit, who now plays more in the political midfield, than the left wing.

Cohn-Bendit suggested that football could be ruined, for many, if a small group of clubs monopolised all the talent. Wenger, naturally, disagreed. It was inevitable for sport at high level, to wish to create élites of the best available performers, he said.

Wenger: "I can tell you that if you are exceptionally talented at sport, you don't want to have to play with people who are nowhere near as good as you. It's frustrating."

Cohn-Bendit: "Well, I can tell you that the same is true in politics." How could it be, Cohn-Bendit asked, that a club like Arsenal still attracted passionate support, even though it had few local players in the team. "You, I think, have only one player who plays regularly who comes from London... "

Wenger (trying to remember Ashley Cole's birthplace): "Er, yes, we have one. That's not bad eh?

"It's true that this is a mystery," Wenger went on. "This question of identity. What makes someone identify with a club, even when the team becomes as multi-cultural as ours? I often put the question to myself. We have a core fan base of 80,000. For them I think, they identify with the club because it makes them feel like winners. They think: 'The team wins, so I win.'

"When I come home on a Saturday night and we have lost the match - something which has not happened for a long time, I admit - I feel guilty. I know that I've ruined the night, the weekend for 80,000 people..."

But how do you run a club with 14 nationalities? Is there a lesson there for the EU?

"What I have tried to do is to make us a mini-nation, the Arsenal nation, I try to define our culture. What we want to be. What kind of football we want to play, first of all. But also how we are going to behave towards one another, what rules we are going to have and how will we respect them.

"But the most important thing of all is communication. Getting people to communicate with one another. I insist on English lessons but we also have meetings where, for instance, the players are encouraged to describe the most important moments in their lives, the events that shaped their lives." Such communication, he suggested, was lacking between the 25 nations of the EU.

Wenger admitted that his own upbringing in Alsace had made him multi-cultural from birth. He spoke only German, or the Alsatian German dialect, until he was six years old and went to school in French. He had received his "moral code" from his German-speaking grandfather but his formal education - and his "footballistic" education - in the French tradition.

Nonetheless, despite this pan-European upbringing, Wenger said that he thought that national teams in Europe - so long as there were national teams - should remain national. He would never be interested in managing England, he said. The job should go to an Englishman. "There are 50 million of them after all... that's why I turned it down when I was asked the first time."