With all that John Terry is alleged to have said, a harsh response from Arsène Wenger could have been expected yesterday.
Wenger, one of the game's great purists and moralists, takes his Arsenal team to Chelsea this afternoon and his pre-match press conference gave him a perfect platform to denounce the accused, to rail against racism, to ensure headlines that would discomfort Chelsea's captain.
But Wenger balked. Of course, he condemned racism as "stupid". Of course he said that, if guilty, Terry "should be punished". And of course, he refused to comment on specifics: "I don't know what happened. I didn't even see the game."
What was surprising, though, was Wenger's passionate and nuanced argument that things are often said "in a passionate situation inside the game" that may be unpleasant but that should not be exhaustively analysed or read as insights into character.
"How much credit can you give to something that is said on the pitch in a passionate situation?" Wenger said. "How deep do you read?" He suggested, with a rather more trivial example than the one currently in the news, that insults on the football pitch are "reflexes" rather than considered speech. "If you have played football, you have said something to your friends sometimes that you are an idiot – but you do not really think that he's an idiot."
Wenger is sometimes portrayed as distant from and slightly contemptuous of the cruder elements of the English game. His conduct on the touch-line, though, has always suggested a manager no less emotional than any other in English football. Yesterday he admitted when asked that he has said things he regretted while hot-blooded over the game. "Of course I have, it's linked, it's passionate."
Accepting that football often induces unpleasantness, Wenger suggested that players should not be held to too high a standard of politeness: "I just feel sometimes what's happening on the pitch is not always politically correct." Certainly, the forensic examination of every hurled insult does not appeal to Wenger. "Do you want every player to be followed by a camera? And analysed completely what he said after the game? That's what we should do then."
It was an argument from realism rather than from propriety, never an excuse for abuse but certainly a mitigation of some unpleasant excesses. Wenger does believe, though, that racism in English football has been minimised during his time here. "Compared to 15 years ago when I arrived, football has become much more international," he said. "England has become much more international, a lot more tolerant, a lot more open-minded. It's a massive improvement."
Rather than focusing on racism specifically, Wenger believes that there needs to be a concerted fight against all forms of abuse in football. He himself has been a victim of abuse, while racism is another part of the whole. "It's the same as racism, for me it's racism anyway," Wenger said of some of the chanting directed at him.
"There is an issue of all kinds of abuse. I worked for 15 years in England and I have been abused how many times? And that doesn't shock anybody. And the media has a part to play as well. It is not only about racism. Any abuse. And what is done in football against abuse? Nothing."
While Wenger was understandably cautious about the specific racism allegations, he was sure that he would not face a diminished Terry this afternoon. "It depends always on the mental strength of the player," he said of the effect of allegations. "You have some players who cannot focus any more. And some players, for them it's a good opportunity to forget about off the pitch problems." He left little doubt that he believes Terry is in the latter camp.
Today's game will be a test of Arsenal's momentum. They have won three in a row, and Wenger's speech to the club's AGM on Thursday was well received. He knows, though, that another victory is necessary to "show you can take us seriously again".
"We have to change people's opinions by the quality of our performance and the quality of our results. I can talk here and talk here, at the end of the day [whether] we win tomorrow or not, will be more important than all of my speeches."
Wenger will face a Chelsea team who have long had a rhythm that Arsenal are still reaching for. Since their defeat at Old Trafford last month, Chelsea have lost only one game, and that was with a two-man deficit. "Maybe they have a bit more creative potential as well [compared to] last season," Wenger said.
Some good news for Arsenal is that their great tormentor Didier Drogba, who has scored 14 goals in 13 appearances against them, is suspended. But they will face Fernando Torres, back from suspension. "This year he looks back to what he was before," said Wenger. "Juan Mata combining with him makes them a bit more creative."Reuse content