Character Art Exchange

in a way I am still in shock

Arsène Wenger is finishing his breakfast in the Paris hotel where he has been coming for years Dean Lowry Jersey 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 Chris Boswell Jersey 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 Ben Lovejoy Jersey impression people wanted to salute my longevity, my fidelity to my Travis Benjamin Jersey 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.

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