Arsene Wenger’s Bright Light On African Football

By Pinky Khoabane

ANYBODY who follows me on Twitter knows my love for Africa and the beautiful game of football, in particular Arsenal. And yes, like all Arsenal fans, the last few years have been painful as we watched our great Arsenal, which before the arrival of the French Messiah Arsene Wenger in 1996 was boring boring Arsenal and which he transformed into a scoring scoring Arsenal. Little-known in English football, he had already made a name for himself on the European continent having been the manager who received the Ballon d’Or from a player. Liberian George Weah dedicated his award for FIFA footballer of the year in 1995 to his former coach at Monaco.

At Arsenal Wenger changed the game. Introducing new dietary habits, training methods and above all transforming Arsenal into a team that offered the most entertaining football in the English Premier League (EPL). In the trophy cabinet, the last years of Le Professeur as he was nicknamed, have proven a dismal failure but on the pitch, on any given day, depending on the players’ mental state, Arsenal’s remained one of the world’s most exciting games to watch, perhaps surpassed only by Barcelona.

Wenger left Arsenal after 22 years as the boss. Among his many contributions to the game will be his friendship and the father-figure he provided to his players (the African players more so) and his legacy as the man who brought African players into the EPL and put them at the forefront of the game. By the time he left, he had signed 16 African players.

Weah has consistently credited Wenger for his success in Europe. The Frenchman brought the Liberian footballer to Europe when he signed him up for Monaco in 1988.

Weah won the Ballon d’Or (the only African to win the prize), UEFA Champions League Top Scorer award, Coupe de France, Ligue1, Coupe de la Ligue, Serie A title, English FA Cup among others.

And the three-time Africa footballer of the year has reflected on how he reached the peak of his football career while appreciating the French tactician for helping him to surpass his own expectations.

“When I moved to Monte Carlo [to play for Monaco from the Cameroonian club Tonnerre Yaoundé in 1988] I didn’t play for the first six months. But I was determined to showcase my talent, to prove to those back home, who thought that my coming to Europe was a waste of time, that I was a good player.”

“He (Wenger) was a father figure and regarded me as his son. This was a man, when racism was at its peak, who showed me love. He wanted me to be on the pitch for him every day.

“One day, I was quite tired of training and told him that I was having a headache. He said to me: ‘George, I know it’s tough but you need to work hard. I believe that with your talent, you can become one of the best players in the world.’ So, I listened and kept going on. Besides God, I think that without Arsène, there was no way I would have made it in Europe.”

Such has been Wenger’s impact on Weah that their relationship has transcended beyond the football pitch. They’ve travelled to Liberia together and Wenger made the guest list when Weah was inaugurated as president of Liberia at the beginning of the year.

When Wenger arrived at Arsenal there was not a single African player in the first team squad of any EPL team.

Weah’s cousin Christopher Wreh was Wenger’s first African signing.

In 1999, Wenger set a new English transfer record paying £4.5m for Nigerian Nwankwo Kanu and instantly bringing Arsenal to Nigerians. After signing Kanu, Arsenal became the most popular club in Nigeria, watched week-in-and-week-out. Kanu was part of the Invincibles of 2003/04 which went unbeaten in the season and went on to win the Premier League. https://genius.com/Arsenal-fc-arsenal-2003-04-invincibles-squad-annotated. Kanu says many managers didnt give him a chance to continue playing football following his heart surgery but Wenger did everything to lure him to Arsenal.

Kanu was at the Emirates Stadium on Wenger’s send-off to honour the man who believed in him when others didnt.

He’s been like a father figure for all of us,” Kanu told Arsenal’s official website.

For me, when I was at Inter Milan he did everything to try to get me to Arsenal for six months. That’s the kind of person you want to be and want to support.

 “At the time, nobody believed in me. They were like, ‘You’re coming out from hospital, can you play football? But he believed in me and when I came here, I didn’t disappoint him. That’s why I’m here today”.

Kolo Toure played under Arsene Wenger for 7 years

Ivorian defender Kolo Toure was part of the Arsenal Invincibles. The African star became the first player to achieve that record with two separate teams in Britain, playing for Celtic. Kolo Toure can call himself a double invincible!

Arsene Wenger has had an arsenal of African players, sticking to his guns to give them a chance when other football managers criticised the Africa Nations Cup, which is played in January, a crucial time for the EPL.

Wenger has spoken out about the timing of the Nations Cup and how it jeopardised the chances of African players in Europe. His wish has been granted and the African Cup of Nations 2019 will be played in June and July. https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/40670308

Alex Iwobi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are among the current crop of African players at Arsenal

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  1. As a fellow Gunner i really appreciate this piece about my team but most importantly how Sir Wenger bucked the norm and trend and gave African players not only exposure but care and being a father away from home for them. We are forever grateful for his contribution to African football in this regard. He saw the raw talent of Africans that other European coaches missed/ignored. Just sad that a player like Alex Song who was destined for greatness and legendary status dropped Arsenal for the bright lights of Barcelona (One of the most racist clubs in the world ask Eto’o and Keita and Yaya Toure how they were treated there) He never recovered from that error of judgement. Once again thanks for the piece. WE ARE THE GUNNERS!

    1. Thanks my fellow Gooner. Hail Arsene Wenger indeed. Apart from the racism, players left Arsenal for Barcelona and spent more time sitting on the bench – whenever players left Arsenal we would warn them. Remember Fabregas!
      I honestly had thought Arsene would remain at Arsenal in the development side because there is no manager who can beat him at developing players. As he rightly says on the picture I attached – Arsenal didnt buy stars – it made them hence he stuck around at Arsenal as long as he did – the club understood the value (in pounds) he made for them.

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