“Being a football manager is not just about coaching players,” says Arsène Wenger with a smile when he’s reminded of the masses of paper work and lobbying he was involved with to help secure Arsenal’s move to Emirates Stadium 10 years ago.
The world of politics inevitably - and increasingly often - collides with football, and modern managers frequently find themselves playing ‘politician’ as a result. Of course the crossover between football and politics is nothing new. Arsenal’s influential chairman of the early 20th century, Sir Henry Norris, served as a Conservative MP while running the Gunners.
Since then politics and football - indeed sport in general - haven’t always been the happiest of bedfellows, with Fifa steadfast in its belief that it, and all football clubs, should remain apolitical. But as Arsène revealed when he sat down to speak to the Arsenal Magazine, politics and football can also combine as a force for good.
Arsène, how do you think politics can have a positive effect on sport, and football in particular?
Well first of all governments can deliver the money that is needed to structure the game. Football first of all needs stadiums and infrastructure. So that’s the material side. On the moral side politics plays a part too. They help to make sure that the competitions and the education within the sport have the right values. That’s a very big responsibility. To talk about Nelson Mandela, he moved from politics more into sport, because of the huge example he was. He was a guy who had an ideal and was ready to commit to what he thought was right. He was both above sport and within sport. Above sport because he showed a huge human side, and these values are carried by football as well – how to live together.
I remember 40 or 50 years ago, we were much more insular and there was hate - even to your neighbour. There’s a more comprehensive attitude in football nowArsène Wenger
I believe that, without noticing it, the modern game has improved a lot in the sense that the football world has become more international. It has developed human rights and human respect. I remember 40 or 50 years ago, we were much more insular and there was hate - even to your neighbour. There’s a more comprehensive attitude in football now and you have to thank politicians for that too because they have opened the world. Of course they have created tensions too, but overall it is still very positive and sport has benefited from the borders opening up within Europe, for example.
Do you worry about the increased involvement of politics when you see some figures or organisations looking to trade off the popularity of football for their own gain?
Yes, some people use big names in our sport, just to promote themselves, and some people just appear at a big event, not because they love the sport, but because they want to be seen there. That’s not genuine, and can be detrimental to the sport, but you can’t fool people that way.
Is it damaging when nation states take control or sponsor European teams to enhance their own reputation worldwide?
No, not really, if it’s done to promote the game. The examples we have seen are Man City and Paris Saint-Germain and they look to deeply transform the structure of the clubs, and help to develop the game in the right way. Maybe the detrimental side of it is the unfair competition, because they have so much money. But I don’t have a problem that they really develop the clubs.
There is a history of countries trying to prove their political power by excelling at sport - East Germany and Russia for example. Why did they do that?
At the time it was the Eastern Bloc against the Western Bloc. It was more about asserting one system against the other. The real danger was that they used individual lives of sportsmen just to promote their system, instead of promoting the individual person through the boundaries of sport. It was uncovered later that there was a lot of doping going on, causing a lot of health damage. That was the sad side of politics in sport. They just used people to promote their system. It shows that sport can be very powerful, but also in that case, very dangerous. They promote the egos of individuals so much that still today, people are willing to do anything to be successful, even damaging their health. Today it’s less about the system corrupting the individuals, and more that the individuals corrupt themselves to promote their own identity.
But what examples are there of the power of sport being used for good through politics?
Well let’s not forget that Mandela himself was a boxer. He boxed even in jail and he said even afterwards that it helped him to survive. I think individual people can promote their sport when they have a moral elegance combined with physical elegance. The big figures are people like Muhammad Ali, who have a certain class, then they get involved in politics due to their reputation, and they can promote their values through sport. What I find very interesting is when people have been involved in their sport, and stay involved after their career has finished. You have more and more examples now – I think Beckham will, Platini already has, and so on.
Managers have to be ‘politicians’ now, using rhetoric, choosing words carefully etc. Who have you been influenced by in a public speaking sense?
That’s true, I look at politicians when they are interviewed because it’s a game - similar to when managers are interviewed by the press. It’s a game where you are caught between two things: Deliver a message, but also don’t be caught out. You know that every sentence, every part of a sentence, could be dangerous for you, your club, and your team. There is always a little tension there.
There’s no one I particularly admire for their public speaking at the moment, but I think the English politicians generally speak quite well. Cameron speaks well, so did Blair before him. You have Barack Obama too, but I always think that although they have a quality to express the speech, you never know how much of the speech they wrote themselves. Does it really come from their heart or not?
They can use their time now to dedicate it to good causes, and that’s absolutely fantastic, because it’s very powerfulArsène Wenger
Many footballer have made the crossover. You mentioned Michel Platini, who has become a respected administrator, and said Beckham could go that way. What about players you have worked with? Who could be next?
I think Henry, Bergkamp, Adams, Lauren – I forget many at the moment, but they all could do it. You see Lee Dixon now a lot for example. When you work at my level, you work with a lot of talented players and they are very intelligent, so that means they can play a part in the game after their career too. Whether they want to go into it or not, is a difficult question. Then you see people like Kanu, Vieira, Edu who all want to make a difference through their charity work. They realise they can have a big influence today, when before these players couldn’t. That’s because firstly they are known world-wide, they have a global reach. Secondly they have the financial resources not to work any more, which is new for this generation. The Patrick Vieira generation is maybe the first which can live without any further income for the rest of their lives. I see Lilian Thuram for example does a lot of charity work. They can use their time now to dedicate it to good causes, and that’s absolutely fantastic, because it’s very powerful.
Why do you think Fifa is keen to keep football as apolitical as possible?
I think it’s a good idea at the start, because once a Prime Minister becomes involved in Fifa, once the World Cup draw is made, he will interfere because he’ll want to do well for his country. So it’s better not to be influenced by any country. It has to go on like that, to be completely neutral and keep making the right decisions. You also want to defend human rights through football, and to do that you have to be neutral and not have politics involved.
Is it more difficult to keep politics out though?
Yes, it’s more difficult because there is a huge interest in football all over the world.
Politics has always played a part in football though. As long ago as 1919 Arsenal were using politics to their advantage to gain promotion under Henry Norris.
That’s influence. Political influence, which has always played a big part in the game, but I feel we have to keep it out as much as possible. Football has to make neutral decisions based on strict rules. One of the problems in the modern world is that these football organisations are now challenged in civil courts and human rights courts. That is the biggest danger nowadays, that everything can be challenged in the courts.
How will football be able to implement their own laws within EU law then?
I will give you a concrete example. When Marseille was kicked out of the Champions League by Uefa - in 1993 I think - they challenged the decision straight away in a tribunal in Zurich, and won the case on the same day. So they were told they could not be kicked out. Then Uefa called the French government and said ‘if you don’t accept our decision, we will kick the French national team out of the next European Championship’. So then the Prime Minister called the President of Marseille and said ‘you will accept the decision.’ That could not happen today, because even that decision would be challenged in the courts. So that has changed, and on that front Uefa and Fifa have lost power, so you can challenge their decisions much more easily. But when you subscribe to Uefa, you sign that you accept their rules. Of course this can still be challenged in the courts though.
Read the interview with the boss and more in the latest edition
Finally, do you trust politicians to make decisions that will affect the game over here? Safe standing is the subject of political debate again and is likely to be decided at a political, rather than FA, level for example.
Well I think politicians have done well on this aspect, the security side, of football. You need proper policing and security in the stadiums. Sometimes though this can take a little of the charm away from the game, but you also have to put yourself in the politicians’ position. We live in a 100 per cent secure society – nobody accepts any risk any more because people are sued if anything happens. They are more cautious because of it, which you can understand.