The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
You’d think Arsène Wenger would be the sort of manager a bureaucrat would like. At Arsenal, he’s been a model of steady competence, careful planning, and the refusal to spend £28 million on Juan-Sebastian Veron. A serious and somewhat downcast man, he’s not necessarily beloved by the yeah, but innit, like set who drink heavily before matches and then host Sky Sports roundtable shows, but I think most fans would agree that if all managers ran their clubs the way he’s run Arsenal, a lot of the problems now facing football would be, in the language of science, significantly less prone to exist.
UEFA president Michel Platini isn’t most fans, however, and he has once again ruffled the world’s feathers by launching an unprovoked broadside at the man everyone loves to admire impersonally. Bureaucrat though he may be, Platini has no time for Wenger’s scandalous moderation and prudence, and he is deeply contemptuous of Wenger’s disgraceful tendency to identify and sign good players and then win matches with them.
This time, he gave an interview to a Grenoble newspaper in which he sniped that Wenger only liked to talk “about business”; then, after the interviewer tried to steer him toward other topics, he went back to mock Wenger’s advocacy of goal-line video assistance (this in the week of the Reading ghost goal), and then back again to accuse “people like Wenger” of not wanting little clubs to beat big clubs. Whereas I’m sure that when Platini played for Juventus he was keen to roll over for any plucky upstart in sight.
You don’t need me to stress the absurdity of any of this. What interests me is why Platini seems so obsessed with Wenger in the first place. This isn’t the first time he’s been weirdly driven to needle him in public, and apart from being generally inscrutable, his repeated attacks have had a bitter, sarcastic, personal tone better suited to old Behind the Music episodes or the memoirs of ex-White House staff. It’s odd enough for the president of a continental confederation to lash out publicly at a club manager, and there’s a kind of dizzy self-surrender in the way Platini does it that suggests he just can’t help himself.
The simple reason, I think, is that Platini, when it comes to football, is a nationalist. The Gallic chill first seemed to seize the plains a couple of months after he ascended to UEFA’s high chair, when Wenger gave an interview in which he blamed Thierry Henry’s nagging injury problems on his misuse by the French national team. Platini’s ensuing outrage seemed to have nothing to do with his role in UEFA and everything to do with his role as a former mainstay for France. Since then, he’s only become more strident in his advocacy of structural interventions to preserve the national character of club teams: the 6+5 rule, for instance, which holds that 11 is only 11 if a majority of its integers can order in local restraunts. You could glimpse the tentacles of this ideal waving out from behind his deranged support for Real Madrid’s illegal pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo last summer: moving to Spain would have brought Ronaldo closer to his cultural roots, so God’s will be done.
Wenger, by contrast, is one of football’s purest cosmopolitans, who, while paying lip service to the importance of English clubs developing English players, ultimately wants to field the best players he can, even if none of them speak the same language. Unless their passports can deliver a lethal cross into the box, he doesn’t care about their passports. No one has been more adept at discovering hidden gems among Azerbaijani 14-year-olds than the man who gave Arsenal its first starting eleven bereft of a single Englishman, and Platini seems to loathe him for flaunting it. On some level Platini must know that football has bigger problems than the ones he thinks Wenger represents, but the Wenger problems are the ones he’s made his own and the ones, for whatever reason, that he suffers over. It’s still odd that he’s found the time to attack Wenger but not to say the words “Abu Dhabi,” but the heart wants what it wants. Or doesn’t, in this case, what it doesn’t.
I wonder, too, if Platini doesn’t feel that there’s something obscene about Wenger’s being in England in the first place. His obvious grudge against English football generally and the dominance of the Premier League in particular seems to dovetail neatly with the sorts of prejudices a self-identifying French patriot would be statistically likely to display, and he’s been somewhat prickly over the subject of his own Italian ancestry in the past. Could there be some roundabout compensation at work? Or is Wenger’s vision of borderless meritocracy simply an unbearable threat to his tenuous platform of populist left-wing ethno-conservativism? I’ll start working on my psychology degree; you let me know in the comments.
by Brian Phillips · September 24, 2008