Arsene Wenger must have mixed feelings about returning to China. Last year, he and Arsenal found themselves playing a match in Yiwu – a city where you can cheerfully walk into the main market and purchase 100,000 umbrellas at wholesale price, but find little else of note.
Of course, rumours of a last-minute switch and the rights to host the game being sold on were rife. But the facts are: instead of taking on Hangzhou Greentown in their own backyard, Arsenal battled out a 1-1 draw in front of 20,000 baffled traders 100 miles down the road. Still, you live and learn. This time, as Arsenal prepare to play Manchester City in Beijing, after one of the best climaxes to an English Premier League (EPL) season ever, no one is talking about umbrellas.
Certainly, Wenger has other things on his mind. After seven years without silverware, it’s clear where his priorities lie. ‘There are two basic trophies for me that are a sign of the quality of a team in England: the Premier League and the Champions League.’ The rest, he adds, don’t really reflect ‘a deep quality’. So I guess winning that FA Cup – Arsenal’s last triumph – in 2005 didn’t count then? Still, it’s nice to hear him say it.
Wenger is the enigma of modern football: a manager as dedicated to the beautiful game and bringing through young talent as any before – though his detractors would say at the cost of his team’s success. Yet no one would deny that he has brought glory and financial stability to a sport rocketing off the rails. While EPL champions and Cup rivals Man City (backed by a wealthy Abu Dhabi-based group) reported annual losses of 195 million GBP for the 2010-11 season, in the same financial year, Arsenal posted a pre-tax profit of 49.5 million GBP. 1-0 to the Arsenal!
‘When I first came to England, this issue [of financial responsibility] didn’t exist. Every club was run within its resources. The likes of Chelsea and Man City are new problems in football. [But] it doesn’t mean you can’t win the title if you can’t compete financially’
No wonder he’s the poster boy for Uefa’s new financial fair-play regulations, which only allow teams to incur losses of 39 million GBP over a three-season period or face severe penalties. Some would call it vindication for his patience, but Wenger is cautious. ‘We need first to see how effectively financial fair play can be enforced before we can fully understand the impact,’ he says. ‘[But], if the rules are well introduced, it will be a massive advantage to Arsenal, of course.’
We wouldn’t begrudge him a quick grin at the last comment. Yet even Wenger has had to learn to be flexible. Arsenal used to do intensive pre-season training in Austria – fan-courting jaunts were considered a distraction. He even commented in May this year that tours like this one are a ‘sporting compromise’. But not even Wenger can argue with shirt sales. ‘There is a big potential for fans here and that is the main reason why English teams come,’ he says candidly. ‘I resisted for a long time but, as the Premier League becomes more and more a world league, it is important that we develop our fan bases.’
Just no one mention Yiwu! Nevertheless it’s good news for China’s football fans, who will be hoping that star striker Robin van Persie’s future at the club is tied up by then, and that new signings, such as Germany’s Lukas Podolski, return from Euro 2012 unscathed in order to get something more than just a sleepy exhibition game.
For their sake, we’re thankful that Wenger is a stubborn man. The one thing he refuses to compromise on is the way his team plays. ‘The important thing is to act with style, with class, and with forward thinking,’ he tells us. True enough, Arsenal play football the Arsenal way – whoever they’re against. Just ask despairing fans who saw the Gunners collapse 4-0 in the last 16 of the Champions League away to AC Milan, only to see them destroy the Italians at home and miss victory by an inch. His sides have courage – you can’t deny that.
At least one thing is certain: when the crowds at the National Stadium roar as the two teams emerge from the tunnel, Wenger will be on the sidelines, as animated, twitchy and outraged as ever. He’s done his numbers, and ‘The Professor’ knows he’s right – of that you can be sure. What better chance to prove that the richest team doesn’t always win?Arsenal vs Manchester City takes place at the National Stadium on Fri 27 at 8pm