Arsenal's Arsene Wenger on Idolising Pele, Playing Like Roy Keane and Being Fond of Pies
Do you remember the first football match you ever saw? Who were your idols?
The first football match that I saw was in my village [Duttlenheim, on the French/German border]. The local team would meet in my parents’ little pub every Sunday. In the week leading up to the game, all the talk would be about who would be picked for the team – so you could say I’ve been learning about team building since I started to walk. As a kid I thought the only important thing in life was football. And I haven’t changed a lot since!
My first idol was Pele. Everybody spoke about him and because we couldn’t see him much on TV he was even more a mystery. After that most of my idols were German – Overath, Beckenbauer – because at the time their football was so strong.
You’re clearly a very intelligent man who could have succeeded in many different vocations. When did you realise that football was the profession for you?
I studied hard at school but it was always obvious to me that if I could spend my life in the game then I would. I started to practise at the age of nine but because I came from such a small village I didn’t have my first coach until I was 19. I thought it was just a dream – it seemed that footballers were on another planet entirely. My parents found it difficult to accept that their son, who worked so hard in school, could go to work in football. Back then, football was not a job for serious people. They wanted me to become a lawyer or a doctor or something like that. I needed to fight to convince my parents. Fortunately, I’ve finally managed to get myself a decent career [laughs].
I’ve heard that you play down your ability as a footballer and were actually better that you say. What kind of player were you?
I wasn’t an international but I played at the top level in France [winning Ligue 1 with RC Strasbourg in 1979]. Sometimes I think, ‘If I had the conditions of the modern players, how good would I have been?’ I don’t know. I came very late to the game but the most influential guy, my coach Max Hild [at AS Mutzig], has said I was quite a decent player. I was first a striker then a midfielder then finished as a centre-back so I could defend and attack at a certain level.
You’ve been compared to both Ray Parlour and Roy Keane. Is that a fair comparison?
I would be happy to be both!
Were you one of those players who was always destined for management? Did you take notes during team-talks?
I didn’t necessarily think so at the time because I didn’t know whether I would be good enough. But I always got on well with my coaches and they with me because we shared a passion. I would drive 600 miles to look for decent players. Sometimes I would arrive two hours before the game started and stand behind the goal in the rain and then drive home the same night. What people don’t know is that when I was a young coach of 31 at the Strasbourg academy, I was coach, scout, physio, captain... everything. It was a fantastic education.
You, Sven, Jose, Sir Alex... do you think there’s any advantage in going into football management after a less-than glittering playing career?
[Looks a little put out at this description of his playing career] Certainly, because you have a little bit of frustration from your career and that can help the motivation. I did not have complete recognition as a player and maybe I felt that could be forgotten. It’s difficult to say, but I’m tempted to say yes.
Given your track record, did you find it odd that no one in England seemed to know who you were when you arrived at Arsenal? What did you think when you saw headlines like ‘Arsene Who?’
I could understand the public not knowing who I was but I was surprised the specialists didn’t. I’d taken Monaco to the Cup Winners’ Cup final [in 1992], helped them to win the league  and won the cup three times [1989,1990,1991]. But it didn’t bother me much because at the end of the day that meant they had low expectations of me [laughs].
Were you aware that Arsenal were known throughout the country as ‘Boring, Boring Arsenal’? How easy was it for you to change that culture and introduce your own?
Yes, I was aware of Arsenal’s reputation and so I brought my changes in slowly and patiently. After all, I had inherited a good team. There’s always a risk if you don’t start well that you won’t be accepted. That’s why I started cautiously; I knew I had to win games to convince the players.
I remember you played three at the back for a while when you first arrived at Arsenal. What was your thinking behind this? Had you not heard of the ‘Famous Back Four’?
I had heard but when I arrived they were already playing that system. We had three very intelligent central defenders in Martin Keown, Steve Bould and Tony Adams and they were quite happy with it. I didn’t like the system but I thought I’d leave it to the end of the season because to change it I needed to change the players.
You’re known for changing the dietary habits of Arsenal’s players. But is there any unhealthy British speciality you’re a bit partial to? Fish and chips, roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, steak and kidney pie, apple crumble and custard?
Fish and chips not so much, but Christmas pudding, yes! I like pies. Cherry pie, apple pie, with ice cream. I like a lot of things that are not good for you. But I always find it stupid that a player can practice the whole week and then spoil his game because he eats something silly 24 hours before. I remember my first day at Arsenal when we were travelling to Blackburn and the players were at the back of our bus chanting, ‘We want our Mars Bars!’ [laughs] They used to eat them before the game but I took them away. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee you win the game, but it means the guy with a sensitive liver doesn’t have his preparations ruined. Food is like kerosene. If you put the wrong one in your car, it’s not as quick as it should be.
Arsene Wenger talked to me courtesy of Nike. Thank you Nike.
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