Disclaimer – this is a fiction inspired by a photograph of Arsene Wenger; Wenger was 28 at the time the picture was taken, and his career was moving rapidly towards management. There is a certain beauty to it that I couldn’t resist setting differently
There is an Arsene Wenger that used to exist, and there is an Arsene Wenger exists today. The two are different, almost entirely, though they take a similar shape and possess similar dreams and ideas.
The Wenger of the past existed only up to a certain moment, a moment that he had been building up to for his entire life. When it came to him, that moment, he was ready. His preparation was complete, and he could not fail to achieve his destiny.
The ball came to his feet while he was playing for his hometown club Strasbourg against Monaco, and the gangly Wenger took it under his spell the way only he knew how. He kept it at his feet, as though it was a small dog and he was walking to the shops with it, as he approached a Monaco defender. This was where the moment came into being.
The same moment occurred for another footballer some years later. In the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Diego Maradona had cast a spell over a football, and approached the Belgium defence, pausing for a split second in one of the most famous images of his, or any, career.
Wenger’s image is perhaps less celebrated, but no less pivotal. In that moment, with the ball at his feet and his eyes beyond the defender, all things were possible. In that moment, Wenger existed in a state of maximum potential. He could do anything. He could pass, he could dribble, he could shoot. He had everything ahead of him, and it was within his power to achieve it.
From the pitch of the Stade de la Meinau, his legend could spread. It could take him beyond Strasbourg, beyond France and beyond Europe. That potential to achieve, and the things he could do when he fulfilled it, promised everything.
The decision he took in that split-second was pivotal to Wenger, the action he took after it crucial, and the combination of the two had the power to shape both the rest of his life, and football as a whole.
He paused. He paused to think, and he paused to appreciate, reassured by the knowledge that everything he had done had been in readiness for this. He paused.
And then the ball bobbled in front of him as he tried to keep in under control, and in an instant the defender was upon him and the moment was gone. His chance for everything has slipped through his fingers in the blink of an eye, the possibility he might attain football perfection had eluded him, and would never again cast its potential over his game.
Broken, Wenger never again reaches the heights of that moment, the Wenger captured in that photograph is the very height of the footballing Wenger, his flame never burning as brightly as it did in that moment.
That moment is the exact moment that the Wenger of today was born. The Wenger of today is aware of that moment, and is aware that opportunity should be grasped by both hands the second it presents itself because to let it pass by, even for the blinking of an eye, is to allow the potential that it could be gone forever.
His Arsenal teams are formed with that in mind. His constant promotion of youth is to ensure that his team is filled with players who might yet have their moment of maximum potential ahead of them.
He is haunted by the idea that not only will it have passed him by, but that he will oversee other players experiencing a similar thing, and watch boys he has nurtured from a young age, blooding them through League Cup games and in late season victories over relegation candidates, become a shell of the player they might have been, an empty husk of their potential, forever remembered for what they might have become rather than what they did – 60,000 people suspending them in time a moment before they even really existed.
He cannot let go of the idea that somebody else will oversee Arsenal and see Arsenal’s players come to that point, and cannot comprehend that his anxiety over what happened to him can affect some of the players in his charge as well.
Wenger could have been everything, but now he can only be Wenger. And while that may eventually prove to have been enough, in the moment, in the present, it can never be.