But perhaps the most compelling justification for a profile on Arsenal's erstwhile manager is that, through football, Wenger offers us a case study of a radical developmental business model that actually works. Arsene Wenger has built a global footballing empire based on developing and nurturing young talent coupled with a strict focus on frugality - all while competing, and beating the best in the world.
"The money is there to help you create a good team and when you feel you have a good team, you do not necessarily need to spend it." He told Matt Huges of The Times in London. "Personally I'd rather just be top of the league because finances usually follow the sporting side. We focus on what is important on the pitch, knowing that if we do that, finances will follow."
Arsenal's example should speak volumes to those doing business in South Africa and take seriously business' commitment to the personal development of employees while never compromising on performance and service. Perhaps that's why Arsenal are the most popular English team on the African continent.
Our man Wenger was born in 1949 in Strasbourg, capital of the Alsace region of France, along the German border. His parents Alphonse and Louise had a sideline in auto-parts but spent most of their time running a successful bistro and pub in the small village of Duttlenheim on the outskirts of Strasbourg, known as La Croix d'Or [The Gold Cross]. The skeletons in the family cupboard include a grandfather who fought for the Kaiser in World War One, while his father fought for The Third Reich, on the Russian Front, in World War Two.
"Fighting with very little enthusiasm," Wenger informs us. By the time he was born, Alsace was again part of France and football was an increasingly popular placebo for all that war stuff. But it was the old bistro, not the auto-parts business that had a lasting effect on Wenger's footballing development, claims biographer Jasper Rees. "It was the siège of FC Duttlenheim - the HQ, the head office - where the talk was all of football, where the game leaked into the marrow of the young Wenger and stayed there. Within its four walls Wenger imbibed one of the central tenets of his footballing philosophy: that it is an offence to be drunk in charge of a football, or even to let alcohol touch your lips as a player. Perhaps imbibed is the wrong word."
The devoutly Catholic Wenger played enthusiastically for the local club, FC Duttlenheim. According to Rees, "When he wasn't praying, he was rounding up boys to play in the game. In such a small village, it wasn't easy getting 11 together in one age group. Wenger would spend the whole week assembling a team. Otherwise they'd have to play one short, or two. Perhaps it was in the early 60s that he began his love affair with pace and power, as you needed these to combat numerically superior teams. Arsenal often thrive when one of their number has been sent off; and struggle, by contrast, when they are playing against 10."
Arsene's playing career was muted, he played for a number of amateur teams while at university in Strasbourg, studying economics. He eventually went pro and turned out for FC Strasbourg. He played for the team 12 times and even helped them to win the Ligue 1 title in 1978/79. In 1981 he obtained a manager's diploma, to add to the masters degree in economics that he obtained ten years earlier. He immediately started managing FC Strasbourg's junior team. He landed his first professional managerial position at Nancy in the French Ligue 1 in 1984, but didn't fare too well and in his third and final season they were relegated. Untarnished by that failure, Wenger was hired by AS Monaco and took them to the French title the very next year. They won the French Cup in 1991 and he presided over high power signings like George Weah, Glenn Hoddle and Jurgen Klinsmann. While at Monaco he was approached by both Bayern Munich and the French national team, but turned them down out of loyalty to AS Monaco. Monaco repaid the favour by ditching Wenger after a slow start to the 1994 season. From the Prince's team in Monaco Wenger moved to the Japanese J. League taking over Toyota's Nagoya Grampus Eight, with whom he promptly won the Emperor's Cup and came second in the league. Finally Arsenal had seen enough and knocked on his door. Wenger became the club's first 'international' manager, not from Great Britain or Ireland.
When Wenger arrived at Arsenal, it was an extremely precarious moment in the club's history. Manchester United and Liverpool were the dominant forces in English football and Arsenal had become overly reliant on a boring style of play focused around an impregnable defense and Ian Wright's golden boot to win matches. They sacked their manager Bruce Rioch almost two months before Wenger arrived, and a month later their stand-in coach, Stuart Houston departed for Queens Park Rangers, leaving the Gunners under the curatorship of second in command, Pat Rice. Then Arsenal's captain, Tony Adams, decided to announce to the world that he was an alcoholic. Arsenal were sitting eighth on the table with only two wins from their first five games. Add to this that Arsene Wenger, apart from a catchy first name, was a complete unknown in England.
"Arsene Who?" ran the Evening Standard headline that greeted his appointment. "There was a feeling of who the fuck is he and what is he going to do?" Said Arsenal's captain Tony Adams. Tall and skinny with a thick French accent and a penchant for long raincoats, Wenger quickly earned the nickname 'Clouseau' from his team.
Wenger arrived, took one look at his players and put them all on diet. As a coach apart from his eye for talent and workaholic nature, Arsene is meticulous about tactics, training and diet.
"I always find it stupid that a player can practise the whole week 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 the bus chanting, 'We want our Mars Bars!' They used to eat them before the game but I took them away. Sure it doesn't guarantee you win the football 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."
All of his defenders were over 30, but Wenger persisted with them saying
"The career of a player should be decided by his psychological and physiological profile". He soon had them all on special training regimes and diets to prolong their careers. If the back four were solid, Wenger needed some new acquisitions in the midfield to play the high paced, attack-oriented beautiful game he envisioned. He then went ahead with some very astute signings of relatively unknown players with names that would soon carry much weight, and hefty paychecks, in the world of football. He signed Patrick Vieira from AC Milan for £3.5 million and re-invigorated the career of Denis Bergkamp who he inherited with the Arsenal job. He then went on to scoop up Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars and a sulky French teenager known as Nicolas Anelka for a paltry £500 000. In his second season in charge Arsenal scooped the double, winning both the Premiership and The FA Cup.
As biographer Jasper Rees puts it, "his revolutionary ideas about management, psychology, diet and fitness have turned a team of old English crocks, young French misfits and a Dutch master or two into one of the most sublime footballing teams ever seen."
The following two seasons were a bit leaner, and in 1999 Arsenal missed out
on the Premiership to Manchester United by one miserly point.
He bolstered his squad signing more relatively cheap, un-rated players with names like Sol Campbell, Robert Pires, Freddy Ljungberg and this guy called Thierry Henry. With these new players forming the core of Wenger's team, Arsenal again won the double in the 2001/02 season. The following season they almost retained their title, but Manchester United overhauled them in the last two games of the season. They still managed to win the FA Cup in 2003. Like a sage and a seer, Wenger predicted that Arsenal could go through an entire season without being beaten in the Premiership. The British newspapers responded with derision and howls of laughter. But in the next season Wenger's Arsenal did just that. Thierry Henry was the lynchpin. Henry arrived at Arsenal playing on the wing. It was Wenger who shifted him to center forward. "At first, Thierry wasn't convinced he would score goals," said Wenger with some amusement. "He has scored a few since."
During that season they were also suffering the sting of diminished cashflow, as the club had to cough up about £390 million to build the new Emirates Stadium, leaving the squad relatively depleted. And yet Wenger continued signing unknown yet precocious prodigies for a steal. And added the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, Robin Van Persie and the Ivory Coast's Kolo Toure to his squad. In 2005/06, the club made it to the UEFA Champions League final, the only piece of silverware still eluding Arsenal and Wenger. Alas their ten men (goal keeper Jens Lehman getting sent off in the first 20 minutes) lost to FC Barcelona 2-1.
"People seem to think it's part of the natural order of things that Arsenal and Man U are one and two in the Premiership more or less every year now." Says Arsenal fan and popular British novelist Nick Hornby. "It's not in the natural order things. It's entirely because of Wenger."
This year Arsenal, despite being discarded as top 4 whipping boys by most pundits at the beginning of the season have led the Premiership since January. And their squad is predominantly made up of players under the age of 25. Fabregas is 20, Adebayor 24, Clichy 22, Flamini 23, Van Persie 24, Bendtner 20, Eduardo 25, Hleb 26, Walcott 18, and a smattering of old men like William Gallas and Manual Almunia aged 30.
As, ex-Arsenal manager and English footballing great, George Graham was recently at pains to point out; Arsenal have lost Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Lauren, Patrick Vieira, Edu, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp over the last two seasons. "Don't try to tell me they're going to replace them with kids and get the same results."
Well actually, that's exactly what Wenger has done.
The truth is, if a 14 year old kicks a football with any skill from Dakar to Dusseldorf, Arsene Wenger probably knows about it. And this is perhaps the most startling of his accomplishments. His eye for signing young talented footballers from all over the world and fashioning them into global superstars, instead of shopping the transfer market for the expensive ready-made items. Lord knows it's easier to pick experienced professionals ready to do their job. But where's the fun in that?
"We live in a world where the last game is always a definitive conclusion." He says in a post match interview. "But it is not as simple as that. To educate young players great patience is needed as well as a comprehensive attitude and tolerance. That is my problem not yours."
Alas there is no point developing talent if you don't win football matches, as Wenger says online at Arsenal.com, " a top team is consistent. I can play a great shot in tennis or golf but to beat a great player I need to be consistent. Consistency is the first mark of a great team and we have that."
Apart from the pleasure associated with making their own stars, a successful scouting policy pays dividends in the boardroom. Accordingly a survey run by financial information website Fool.co.uk, showed that Wenger was the only Premiership manager of the four leading clubs to make a profit on transfers. Jose Mourinho's Chelsea fared the worst spending £169 million on new players over the last four years and only recouping £45 million in transfers. Arsenal on the other hand bought Nicolas Anelka £500 000 in 1999 and sold him to Real Madrid for £22.3 million just two seasons later. Vieira was bought for £3.5 and sold for £13.7. In 1997 Wenger bought a crocked Marc Overmars from Ajax for a steal then sold him to Barcelona for £25 million 3 years later. Even the almighty Thierry Henry, who swore he'd never leave Arsenal, made the club a £5.5 million pound profit on transfer to Barcelona.
The central tenet to Wenger's philosophy is that, "success is paralysing". When a player outlives their utility, Wenger is both uncompromising and unemotional. Forget all the on-field service, the last minute goals and the glory shared, once you've reached your sell-by date, you're toast. And Wenger has an incredible nose for that. Very few Arsenal players go on to greater glory at other clubs. Careers start and end at Arsenal.
"If you don't change anything, three years later you are suddenly not successful and you don't know why." Says Wenger of his approach to change management. "You want to repeat quality but also to improve quality, so you have to change. When you lose there's also a resistance to change but when you are a manager you can't be scared to put pressure on and to take a risk by changing. You can't be scared of change."
Take that and apply it to your human resources department.
Yet another reason why Wenger makes such a great role model for South African business is his strict adherence to merit and expertise. Something sorely missing in our mad scramble towards Political Correctness, BEE compliance, faux development and corporate window-dressing. Eish.
"I'll always fight fanatically against all the quota systems. I find them utter rubbish. I think that sport is just because it rewards the best. You could be my son but if you're not good enough then you don't play at Arsenal. You could be the son of Tony Blair, but if you're not good enough then you don't play at Newcastle. Sport should reward the best. If you're good enough, my friend, you play - no matter what your name, colour or passport... I don't look at the passport. You are good enough or not good enough."
And just in case you are still resisting the urge to purchase an overpriced Fly Emirates Arsenal jersey and place a picture of Arsene Wenger on the wall in your office - as they say at Arsenal, "In Arsene we trust." - Mull over some of these facts.
Last year Arsenal FC earned £177 million for football alone. They make £3.1million income from each match - their new 60 000 seater stadium is always full every time they play. There is a waiting list of 41 000 for season tickets at the Emirates Stadium. They sold 968 000 match-day programmes last season. All on the back of one man's outrageous plan.
As we conclude, I'd like to take you into the dressing room at the Emirates Stadium. We're all standing in a huddle around Arsene Wenger. You're squashed between Adebayor and Flamini, still in your clean togs waiting for a second half run. I'm squeezed between Eboue and Fabregas, panting hard, about to get subbed. We all want to win, this is the most important game of the season, the most important game of our lives, perhaps. Arsene Wenger looks over his long Gallic nose, directly at you and in his wisdom says: "Inhibition makes you small. If you don't believe, that's the worst thing. Go out and be yourself."