Fourth in the Barclays Premier League, Arsenal FC are not in a bad position. That—at the risk of reprising a certain Rafael Benitez—is a fact. Granted, they aren’t winning the league, but finishing in the top 4 is nothing to be ashamed about. They put up a brave fight against Barcelona in their Champions League tie too; and their manager Arsène Wenger is probably right to point out that in recent years—with the exception of AS Moncao—they’ve been knocked out either by FC Barcelona or Bayern Munich—teams that are practically on another planet.
The classic accusation levelled at Wenger, is that he “lacks ambition” or that he’s “underachieving”; José Mourinho, of course, famously took this claim to its extreme with his “specialist in failure” comment. All of which is patently unfair. For, the suggestion that Arsenal are underachieving implies an expectation that they should actually win something. And here, we must be careful not to read this in the popular way most pundits and commentators love to: that Arsenal lack the quality—or even more ambiguously, the mental strength—to win a title. The problem isn’t so much Arsenal, or Wenger; rather, it’s a language problem: what winning means.
When Mourinho labelled Wenger a specialist in failure, he never realized that he’d got it entirely backwards. Far from specializing in failure, Arsène Wenger is the perfect—arguably the best—modern-day football manager. For he understands the true state, and condition, of professional football today: one does not need to win, but simply not lose too badly. Thus, to accuse Wenger of not being a winner would be to miss the point entirely: winning is no longer the name of the game. The modern-day formula is simple: consistently finish in the Champions League places; regularly advance beyond the group stages of the European competition; and thereby ensure a steady flow of revenue from ever-increasing television rights, as well as advertisers and sponsors—which is precisely what Wenger has steadily been doing for the last decade.
Of course, it helps that Wenger himself actually appears to believe in some sort of economic prudence and the idea of “value” in the market; this he has generally stuck to by buying young players on the cheap and developing them. Of course, one could point to Mesut Ozil and perhaps Alexis Sanchez as examples of the Frenchman deviating from those principles, but they remain very much exceptions to the rule. In general, it’s hard to disagree with the notion that Wenger is one of the few managers who is genuinely concerned with the bottom line. His overall demeanour helps as well—we rarely see Arsène ranting and raving, or spewing vulgarities in press conferences; the image he cuts is always one of a calm, cultivated, dignified individual—in other words, he rarely, if ever, tarnishes the image of the club—which is crucial when it comes to commercial brands choosing to associate themselves with the club.
This is why, as much as Arsenal supporters may want him out, Arsène Wenger is unlikely to be sacked by the club. He is every CEO’s dream. He is the manager that never asks for more money, never makes excuses, and successfully executes the strategy that keeps the company profitable. That is to say, he succeeds precisely by understanding that he doesn’t need to win.
This is by no means merely a uniquely Arsenal phenomenon. The same strategy applies to other major, rich clubs as well. And the crucial mistake here is assuming that these football clubs are actually football clubs. Perhaps in the past. A past that was markedly less corporatized. When match-day revenue wasn’t outstripped by broadcast and commercial revenue. But we must not allow ourselves such illusions any longer because today, football clubs are, above all else, companies. Where profit is the name of the game—and everything else, supporters, players, the football, winning even, is merely a means to generating more and more. At least with Arsenal, one could say they continue to play at maintaining the illusion that winning is important in and of itself—perhaps for the sake of their supporters. There’re no such pretences over at Manchester United.
When the Glazers bought Manchester United, they were quick to assure fans and supporters that they would remain respectful of the culture and heritage of the club. And the true genius of their regime has been to do that and the opposite—at exactly the same time. Anybody who has been to Old Trafford will be familiar with the anthem that often rings out around the stadium:
Glory, glory Man United
Glory, glory, Man United
Glory, glory, Man United
And the Reds go marching on
What the Glazers have quietly done, seemingly without anyone realizing, is to gently shift the meaning of glory whilst always allowing the song to continue playing.
Where glory was once winning trophies—that happened to bring with it money, it is now just money—and whether or not one passes through the winning trophies phase is quite beside the point—as long as glorious capital continues to flow in, all is well. The greatest triumph of Manchester United plc in recent times has been to take this song that was, has long been, about solidarity with the people, and turn it into the perfect tune for capitalism and consumerism—whilst masking that transformation in the first place.
The perfect crime, as it were …
Perhaps the only remaining clue, trace, of this lies in the echoes of Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. Any fan that visits Old Trafford will realize, as will anyone that listens carefully on television, the anthem is now played rather than spontaneously sung; it comes on, automatically—and often ironically—over the Old Trafford PA system at half-time and full-time – whether the supporters want it to or not. A song that was supposed to channel the triumphant spirit of the fans has now been entirely disembodied—one doesn’t even know who’s singing it: all we hear—no matter what’s happening on the field—is the Reds go marching on. And the message is clear. Regardless of what the supporters might feel, glory be to Man Utd; the anthem will go on; the Reds will go marching on.
And perhaps this is why Ed Woodward, CEO of Manchester United plc, businessman to the hilt, is so hesitant about hiring José Mourinho. Not so much for the banal reasons such as the apparent 3-year cycle that José operates on, nor the suggestion that he leaves behind teams that are emotionally drained. Neither is it the notion that he might not be statesman-like enough for the Manchester United job. The real problem for the company is that José Mourinho is a winner. And that’s the truly dangerous thing: hiring a manager who actually wants to win—at all costs—for nothing but winning’s sake.
Which is why we all need—more than anything else—Leicester City FC to win the Barclays Premier League (BPL).
Exactly one year ago, the phrase ‘Leicester City could win the league and Chelsea will probably finish comfortably in mid-table’ would have been one of those phrases that belonged in a mad alternate universe. The sort of universe that also contained a phrase such as: ‘Sepp Blatter is Football. Football is Sepp Blatter.’ Phrases whose utterance would have been met with universal disbelief; or a suspicion that the commentator was delusional. Except, after a disastrous start, Chelsea probably will end up somewhere mid-table, Leicester City could actually win the league, and there really is a portrait inscribed with the phrase exalting Sepp in FIFA House. Clearly, the alternate reality has come to pass.
The most common reaction to Leicester City’s league campaign has been to regard it with an approving nod and suggest it would be great if they were to win the BPL. For the very romantic reason that they are a hard-working, honest team with a sensible, humble, and thoroughly likeable manager, leading players that play for each other, producing entertaining football: they absolutely deserve to be recognized as the best in England. But there’s a far more important reason Leicester City FC must win the title: to preserve the illusion of the Barclays Premier League itself; an illusion that is founded upon the claim that it is the best league in the world because ‘on any given day, any team can beat another’.
In other words, the BPL is a league that allows everyone to dream.
And in a time where profit is the name of the game, where profit leads to winning rather than the other way around, where champion is increasingly becoming synonymous with rich, Leicester City are reversing stereotypes. Which is probably why nobody—even at this late stage—seems to believe their eyes—that Leicester City could actually do it and win the title. For we are all now confronted by the possibility that what the Premier League suits have been repeating for so long might actually be true. That instead of a closed competition dominated by the rich, by resources, by money, it really is a competition where, even with a limited budget, sheer hard work and ability could bring with it glory.
This is why Leicester City’s rise has captivated and enthralled everyone, supporters, players, and pundits alike. Not just for the heady thrill of seeing the underdog succeed. But because—in living their dreams—Claudio Ranieri’s men have opened everyone else’s too.
Photo of Arsène Wenger and Mesut Ozil, courtesy of Agence France-Presse