Arsène Wenger is finishing his breakfast in the Paris hotel where he has been coming for years and where the staff would not dream of addressing him in any other way than Monsieur Wenger, pronounced in hushed tones that convey the respect in which this grand man of world football is held in his native land.
Dressed in slacks and an open-neck dark blue shirt, the man we must now refer to as the former Arsenal manager has treated himself to a mini pain aux raisins and, having finished his tea (no milk, no sugar), moved on to an espresso. In a sign that he is, perhaps, starting to let himself go just a tiny little bit, he continues spreading raspberry jam on a slice of bread (no butter) as we prepare to look back over his 22 years running one of the world’s top clubs.
Typically from a man who has always been more interested in tomorrow than yesterday, Wenger begins with thoughts on his future. As we sit together for his first major interview since leaving Arsenal, the Huddersfield game – the last of his 1,235 matches in charge of the Gunners – is fresh in his mind.
“It’s just too soon to know what I will do next,” he says. “I haven’t even emptied my desk yet and in a way I am still in a state of shock. I am going to give myself until June 14, the day the World Cup begins, to decide. The question is do I still want to coach, to be on the bench, or is it time to take up different functions? The one thing I can say for sure is that I will continue to work.
“But do I want to continue to suffer as much? I want to continue to defend my ideas of football, that’s for sure. Spontaneously, I would say I still want to coach but I can’t really say that yet for sure.”
Wenger has not stopped working for 34 years. In a time when managers are taking sabbaticals and the average span for a Premier League manager stands at less than two seasons, he has had no time off since he became the Nancy manger in 1984. With that in mind and no need, financially, to work another day, isn’t it time to put his feet up?
“I have friends who can go and lay on a beach all day long for the whole of their holidays and I envy them,” he says with a grin. “I just can’t do that. I get bored. I need to be doing something. I need a challenge. I have lived and breathed football all these years and it’s a passion – I can’t imagine doing anything else. That’s why in a way this is an exciting moment for me, too. I have a new page, a blank page in front of me. As all good writers know, that can be a time of anguish but I hope I won’t have too much of that. It’s also a chance to write new chapters.”
Talking football with Wenger is like having a living encyclopedia on hand. He has attended every major international tournament for as far back as he can remember and he will be at the World Cup as a pundit for beIN Sports, working for the Middle East and French channels when he is not flitting from game to game with his old friend David Dein. I have had the good fortune to accompany him on some of those travels and to work alongside him on some of those shows. Wenger is a dream for a TV host because he has a remarkable memory for games and players, an opinion on everything and often thinks differently to those around him. He is also much funnier than he might let on.
During Euro 2016, for example, when he was working alongside big personalities such as Ruud Gullit, Marcel Desailly, Luis Fernández and Christian Vieri, each time I went into the green room to check on them it was invariably Wenger spinning the yarns and telling the jokes. When we finished the show each day with a football quiz, Wenger was just as competitive and playful as the other pundits, even joining celebrations with the studio audience and leading Mexican waves. In recent days the waves have been to say goodbye, and farewell. The outpourings of warmth at Arsenal but also at Old Trafford and Huddersfield moved the 68-year-old.
“It was very touching to see,” Wenger says. “It has been a strange period – switching from contestation to unanimity in just a few days. Surprising, but quite nice also. I have the impression people wanted to salute my longevity, my fidelity to my club and perhaps the ideas about football I always tried to defend. I take it as a sign of recognition for the total commitment I have always had towards values I hold dearly – the desire to play dynamic, attacking football with a certain idea of how to go about it, too.
“My type of loyalty probably doesn’t exist any more. Maybe the dinosaur I became was the last symbol of times that have changed. We are today in a society which is so quick to reject. There is no time to build, to construct, always this demand for results immediately. Maybe people wanted to manifest that too.
“It was nice to see some of the recognition, I admit. When I arrived, you know, I was a complete unknown and I have always had the impression I am representing my country in a way. In a land where there has always been so much animosity between the English and the French I am proud to have achieved certain things and perhaps to have opened doors for other French coaches. Don’t forget, when I arrived in England a foreign manager was a very rare thing.”
Although Wenger does not want to go into detail, he admits to having received many job offers. In France many imagine him as a natural fit for the Qatar-built project at Paris Saint-Germain. The club recently confirmed Thomas Tuchel as the next manager but Wenger is seen as an ideal chief executive.
“I have had no discussions with them recently, I can tell you that in all honesty,” he says. “I have always been close to those in charge of PSG – I advised them to buy the club because I was convinced there were great things that could be done in a city which loves football. They have worked well and made a good start. I think people are too hard on them, too demanding. PSG just won all four national trophies in France and it’s not enough, apparently. But you cannot build a club with the idea that if you don’t win the Champions League then it’s a failure.”
Although Wenger’s advice was sought by the owners of PSG, his opinions on what should happen next at Arsenal were not solicited. Where Sir Alex Ferguson named his successor, Wenger will be a spectator of future events at the Emirates.
“At least that way they can’t blame me if there are bad results in the future,” he says with a laugh. “They didn’t ask me to be involved in that process. So I will let them choose the manager and afterwards I will support him, whoever it is.”
Mikel Arteta’s name has oft been cited. What does he make of that? “I don’t want to influence that decision – it’s important they make their choice in an objective way and I don’t want anything I say to be misconstrued,” Wenger says. “I know how you do these things – if I say something nice about somebody you will say I am backing him but this is not the case. For Arteta, does he have all the qualities to do the job? Yes. He was a leader and he has a good passion for the game and he knows the club well. He knows what is important at the club and he was captain of the club. So why not? But whoever they choose I will support.”
Before Wenger decides his future he must return to his office and clear out his things; say a final goodbye to Arsenal. “I am an emotional man and it will be, perhaps, an emotional time but I will look around and see that life goes on. There will be youngsters training and playing and that will be a reminder of the passion I have for this game and my role as an educator. When you’re a young boy you have a dream and to fulfil that dream you need attitude and talent but you also need someone to give you a chance.
“I grew up in a village and I met my first coach at the age of 19. But when I was 12, 13, 14 my dream was to meet somebody who would tell me how to play football. I was lucky – it didn’t stop me from making my life in the game but many don’t get that chance. As coaches we can change peoples’ lives, influence lives, and part of that is giving an opportunity to young players. That is one of the most beautiful things you can do.”
We realise it is almost time for lunch and the French don’t mess with that. Just time for Wenger to take a photo with a young fan who tells him it’s perhaps the most beautiful day of his life, to sign the Arsenal shirt he is handed and stride off, destination unknown. A blank page in front of him.