This story first appeared in the March 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Arsenal Football Club is about so much more than what happens on the pitch.
Emirates Stadium is naturally the centre of attention whenever Arsenal are at home on a Saturday afternoon, but the influence of the club spreads far beyond north London, seven days a week.
The club is involved in a huge range of community and charitable projects across the world, and many more closer to home too.
Recently, for example, The Arsenal Foundation funded two pitches in Iraq for displaced Iraqis, in partnership with Save the Children. That’s just one instance of the club’s humanitarian efforts, which are increasing year on year.
"In football, 99 per cent of the time, people come from poor backgrounds, so an advantage football has is that we are not spoiled at a very young age. So unless you lose your humility completely, you don’t forget where you came from. We know we were in the position of the little boys today who need help, and that is the best way to give them something back"
Football generally, and the name Arsenal specifically, can open doors and reach out to people who need help most. So does the sport have a responsibility to use this power in a positive way? And what is already being done to harness this unique appeal?
We spoke exclusively to Arsène Wenger to find out how deeply Arsenal are embedding themselves in communities all over the world.
Arsene, how do you think football is used as a force for good?
I believe the main quality of sport is that it’s a positive force in our society – for many reasons. One of the main reasons is that it gives happiness to youngsters.
We have all been young, and I think some of the happiest moments we had as a child were when we were kicking the ball with our friends in the park. It makes us dream – sport builds dreams for people, which is very important, because those childhood memories stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Sport can help get you out of miserable conditions too. As a child you don’t think about whether you are rich or poor, you just want to play. You are on a level ground when you play football as a child – it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, if you’re good, you play. That’s very positive and it gets children to enjoy themselves.
Whatever their background, you have children going to bed at night and dreaming about being the hero on the football field, and that is something fantastic. Football is a huge positive on that front and on many other fronts as well.
Football, like sport in general, has a big advantage in that it gives people a public image of being together from different countries, and even from countries which are at war. It shows people that peace is possible and sport can be a peaceful force.
I remember from the history books, that in the trenches in 1914, the German forces played football against the allied forces at Christmas. Sport always takes over the negative aspects of life, and that’s something fantastic.
What more do you think football can do to use its unique appeal to enhance people's lives?
It can give a piece of happiness to our lives, even when the working week may sometimes be boring. I would like to think every fan that loves the club thinks during the week: ‘On Saturday I can go to the game and enjoy it.’
It brings moments of happiness to life. It gives dreams to children that at some stage they will play for the club they love. It brings people together at European Cups, at World Cups – these are always great images of people fraternising.
We have a huge responsibility, and there is much more to do because recently there have been negative images of the game with scandals and corruption. We have a responsibility to clean our sport and develop a positive image across the world. Now it looks like football is truly global.
You read about the Chinese League buying players that 10 years ago would have been impossible. That shows you how quickly football spreads through the world and becomes an important force everywhere. That means the responsibility becomes even bigger.
Arsenal are involved in many charitable projects and good causes. Which are you particularly proud of?
Arsenal has always been deeply involved in charity work and social responsibility. To begin with we were only involved locally in Islington, but today we are involved worldwide.
We are involved with Save the Children in territories where it is very difficult to get into, where there are very limited resources, like Iraq. These are countries who are at war or who have refugee camps. I believe that the little bit of happiness we can give these people comes from football and through educating them. That’s why our ambassadors do a great job all over the world to spread that positive force.
Do you often think football should its ability to open doors like this more often?
We try to do more. A football club today is shared between two immediate concerns. You have to win the next game and people who attend the game don’t need to know that you do charity work, but we must never forget our responsibility. As you say, we have to do more and more.
The impact we can have worldwide is down to our immediate results. So we have to take care of both aspects and not forget that the impact we can make through our social responsibility is more efficient if we win games. We try to accommodate both of course.
You have seen football's impact all over the world, are they any specific examples you've seen of football has making a positive impact on a community?
I travel a lot, so I’ve been to Africa, and in areas where you could not even imagine that people would speak about football, and I saw a little boy in an Arsenal shirt. I attended a conference at a university in Beijing, which was full of people all in Arsenal shirts.
The impact and force that football has today is absolutely incredible and sometimes it is scary. We live in a little bubble here where we think about the next game, but our next game is a worry for fans in China, Africa and everywhere too. Sometimes we are not conscious of that and maybe it’s better that way.
I remember I once made a former player aware of the social responsibilities we have all over the world and he said to me, ‘I’m happy you didn’t tell me that when I played because I would have had too much pressure to deal with’. It’s true that sometimes in our little bubble we are protected and we just focus on the next game. It can become overwhelming when you realise how many people are sad all over the world when you don’t win a game.
How big a role can football clubs play in their local communities?
What is maybe more typical in England than anywhere else is that, in a specific area, football grew and came out of the local community, so you have a responsibility there.
But we don’t also have a political responsibility.
Some responsibilities are down to politicians and football doesn’t have to be responsible for absolutely everything in the community. That’s where it is difficult for us sometimes, even in our board meetings, to know how far we can go, how much we can support this or that, or is it down to politicians or the local community.
The line is not that easy to find sometimes. We do as much as we can, but it’s important nowadays to know how far you can go.
But when football has shown it can bring people together at times when politics can't, does it have a duty to use this influence more?
Well I believe football can get people together, yes. I have sat at tables myself where there have been real political enemies at the same table and they would not have been there if it wasn’t an international game or a big game.
That can bring favour and have a little impact but overall, personally I think we should keep out of politics and just try to have a social responsibility for people who we can help. It is most important that we concentrate on helping people, it doesn’t matter if it is on the right or left of politics.
You opened the Arsenal Hub earlier in this season, how proud are you of the work the club's community department has done over the past 30 years?
The head of the community department, Alan Sefton, has been there from the start. He was quite lonely in there at first, but that has become very big now, and I’m very proud of the way it has grown. I have seen how many people can get from there and enjoy themselves.
There are many examples of people who are in employment and fulfilling their potential who had previously been in trouble. To witness how much it helps them is absolutely fantastic. I think we do a great job, but the only negative side is that there are of course some limitations, and that’s where you sometimes feel guilty. This is the kind of job where you go home feeling you can never do enough.
Many of the positive stories in football don't recieve much coverage, why is this?
I believe we don’t do this work for publicity. You just do it because you want to help people. I agree that it does not get enough short-term recognition, but in the longer term I think it implants the club really deeply into the local community, or all over the world, so maybe that work is acknowledged in the longer term. The seeding is much deeper and slower, but the rewards are stronger, deeper and longer.
Many players also do individual charity work, do the club encourage this?
Yes, though I personally think it’s important that we do it through the club, because I identify myself with Arsenal Football Club. But I highly respect what some people do on their own foundations and charity work.
Bob Wilson, for example, has a fantastic charity and we like to help our former players who have created their own successful charity. I have met many players who want to give something back.
In football, 99 per cent of the time, people come from poor backgrounds, so an advantage football has is that we are not spoiled at a very young age. So unless you lose your humility completely, you don’t forget where you came from. We know we were in the position of the little boys today who need help, and that is the best way to give them something back.
Finally, football is always about the last result and the next match, but when you see it helping to solve wider problems, does it help put it into perspective?
It should do, but unfortunately it doesn’t too much for me! I feel I’m in the department which takes care of the short-term. I have to be fully committed to that and leave the other jobs – the responsibility to charities and social work – to the people who do it better.
But when I’m a little bit less under pressure I’m very happy to do the other job too, but unfortunately during the season it is very difficult. If you don’t get the short term right, nothing else works.
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