Footballing autobiographies have been a mixed bag in recent decades. On the one hand, you have insightful and gripping works by the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul Merson; and then on the other hand, books such as Ashley Cole’s My Defence, standing out in the memory for all the wrong reasons. So, the question is, where does Arsène Wenger’s My Life in Red and White fall?
Starting with his early life in Duttlenheim, a tiny rural community near both Strasbourg and the Franco-German border, Wenger paints a picture of a childhood in which football was the only real link to the outside world. This was a chance to escape his village life, and ‘step out onto a real pitch, to experience real battles.’
From childhood we are taken through his footballing rise: spotted in a cup match; picked up by AS Mutzig; slowly progressing through the ranks of French football before transitioning into coaching in his early 30s.
Wenger portrays this progression as a natural one; he styles himself as thinking more like a coach than a player even when he was still playing. He speaks with great admiration for those players who made the transition, and who ‘respected the players, the game, the beauty of the game [and] who did not just count on their opponent’s weakness.’
We get our first glimpse of Wenger’s legendarily all-consuming relationship with football when he reviews his coaching roles at RC Strasbourg and AS Nancy. Wenger characterises himself as an obsessive, one to whom football is life and life is football. His apartment consisted of just a bed, a sofa and a TV – ‘so that every night I could watch over and over again the matches I’d recorded’ – and his existence was a solitary one, often cut off from family and close friends.
Wenger describes this lifestyle as a ‘revelation’, a time in which he could ‘live anywhere and be alone with his passion.’ But while his monastical devotion to football was his saving grace in these days of loneliness, he does admit to some distance, as much emotional as physical, from his family. Writing on his daughter Léa, Wenger concedes ‘she must have suffered sometimes from my absences and from our separation, although she never said anything to me.’
This utter dedication to his craft did bring incredible success, and while Wenger reflects on this legacy with characteristic humility, this does not dim the tone of justifiable pride in his achievements. At Monaco, Wenger ushered in a period of commendable success, winning the Ligue 1 title in his debut season [1987-88] and taking the club to a Champions League semi-final in 1993-94.
Yet, through the way such achievements are described, the reader is left in no doubt as to Wenger’s ultra-competitive nature. It may be a surprise to hear a manager so associated with attacking football admit that he ‘still remembers defeats more than victories.’
These glimpses into the mind of one of football’s greatest innovators set it apart from the blander entries in the genre, and indeed are frequently compelling. Wenger’s descriptions of his feelings of loneliness, obsession, regret and anger, especially towards the British press during his early years in England, are a revealing glimpse behind the curtain.
But such glimpses are just that – glimpses. Wenger has never been averse to introspection, and he is not in these pages, but he is clearly uncomfortable straying too far from the familiar shores of football.
He does not cast himself as a visionary or pioneer of what he calls “off the field training”, such as changes to players’ diets and lifestyles, but simply a student of these practises. His self-appraisal of his role in turning Arsenal into consistent winners and a truly global club focuses far more on his man-management and recruitment duties than, for example, his stewardship of the fraught transition from Highbury to the Emirates.
Managers more comfortable with creating their own legend, in particular Jose Mourinho, are notable by their absence.
My Life in Red and White has its shortcomings, often merely hinting at an emotional edge that may if explored further have placed it higher in the football book pantheon. But is still a well-paced and well-thought-out account of one of football’s most iconic and influential figures, and entirely befitting of its remarkable author.
My Life in Red and White: My Autobiography by Arsène Wenger, translated by Daniel Hahn and Andrea Reece, is published by Orion Publishing, and is out now.