Nirmal Kumar Betchoo
‘I enjoyed good ball passing among the players and the determination that they showed in the game despite our team losing.’ This was typical of legendary Arsenal manager in a recent past when they could hardly stand against big teams like Manchester United, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. From ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ of the 1990s, the ‘red and white’ Gooner team changed drastically its style shifting from ultra-defensive games to attacking style with plethora of strikers like Anelka, Bergkamp, Thierry Henry or Robin Van Persie. Since 1996 to 2018, Arsene Wenger has been a model although his team’s performance dwindled over the years placing it away from a qualifier for the coveted Champions League. This year, taking the sixth position in a contest getting more and more demanding, embarrassed die-hard fans who claimed ‘Arsene, it’s time to go’ and occasionally ‘In Arsene we trust’ when the Gunners won certain games where they were not favourites at the odds.
Since winning the first title back in 1996, Arsenal grew more popular in Mauritius, East Africa, Nigeria, the Emirates and around the world especially in French-speaking Africa. Even French football pundits claimed Arsenal as the 19th team since it was managed by an Alsatian coming from nowhere. Basically, in Mauritius, the football fan share is equitable between the two arch rivals, Manchester United and Liverpool, making it some 90% with a slightly larger share for the Red Devils. The remaining 10% was concentrated on smaller Premier League contenders like Leeds United, Arsenal, Chelsea and a few others. As Arsenal’s success grew phenomenally over the years with titles won in 2002 and 2004, the small share might have been seized by the Gunners. Red and white shirts with the handsomely crafted cannon crescent were worn by generations of Mauritians that saw in their team a sure contender for titles with the Red Devils.
Times changed and fortunes changed as well. The coveted runner-up position in the Premier League drew more title-thirsty teams like Chelsea funded by Russian tycoon Ambramovich, Manchester City funded by Arab venture capitalists and so on. Gradually, contenders like Manchester United constantly changed players and managers, Tottenham Hotspur attracted new home-grown talents like Gareth Bale and Harry Kane, Liverpool bought many players-12 at a certain time under Rafael Benitez. Arsenal remained shy in the ‘sales window’, rarely buying good players but rather selling top players like Van Persie, Fabregas, Kolo Toure, and recently ceded the talented Sanchez to Manchester United and Giroud to Chelsea. In return, it attracted talents like Ozil, Aubayemang or Welbeck but could never tailgate top-flyers that have increased in numbers over the years. Sadly, the Gunners came fifth last year and slipped further this year creating a ‘ras-de-bol’ effect on others. Too late, the milk was spilled and Arsene Wenger had to leave.
It has been an honour for me to follow Monsieur Arsene since 1996 and enjoy the Frenchman’s magic touch over two decades. He was often criticised as stupid by ‘Week-End’ newspaper contributor, Bob Harris for not engaging English players enough or taking wrong decisions. Silverware was not on the shelves since 2005 but some nine years later, a few attractive FA Cup trophies and Community Shields got back their place on the Gunner’s shelves. There were great times as we all know; the ‘Invicibles’ in 2003-2004, the eras of Viera, Overmars, Petit. It could also be wonderful times with Bergkamp, Ian Wright, Tony Adams and David Seaman. Then, other memories might be filled up with Thierry Henry, Van Persie, Anelka, Fabregas and Lehmann. But a team is made of players, talents, managers and the spirit coming from fans who direly support it whether times are good or bad. Competition drove Arsenal away recently and poor performances like a 10-2 aggregate against Bayern Munich made the fans feel sour in the Champions League where Arsenal prospered once for the good of all its fans and Mauritians.
Today, Wenger leaves after having fulfilled his dream and transformed a ‘boring, boring’ game with strong defense from stout men like Campbell or Tony Adams to a fluid attacking style that allows good ball passing. An era goes in the same way as that of the great Alex Ferguson, the magical Reds manager Bob Paisley and the magnificent Nottingham Forest leader Brian Clough.
Among great memories, a few bad spells turn out as cherished moments. The final lost against Barcelona in 2008 after leading for 80 minutes stands out as something great for the team and the fans since that stage of competition has never again been reached by the Gunners. The second one could be somewhere around 2002-03 when Tony Adams waved at his fans thinking that with 78 points they had made it. Just some time later, Manchester United won and led just by 2 points. It is not like the grape turning sour that makes us angry or frustrated against Wenger but rather an admiration for having followed him in times of defeat. And then, Wenger won…the hearts of million fans including the lower than 10% fans who are with the Gunners now welcoming a new manager in the club for how long, you never know?