Commentary

Rip Van Wenger wakes up to the obvious

By Paul Gardner

What ever is it with Arsene Wenger and the Latin Americans? Because, here we go again -- but this time it really does look as though Wenger is having us on.

I know, I know -- I’ve been on about this before. How Wenger, in charge of Arsenal since 1996 has always been the champion of skillful soccer -- at times, he has been almost the one brave, lonely voice for the Beautiful Game. This, mind you, in a country with a strong, traditional affinity for a thud-and-blunder type game, and the joys of getting stuck-in.

But, after eight highly successful years Wenger’s magic touch disappeared. Last year’s FA Cup win was the first trophy Arsenal had won in nine years. During those barren years an anomaly became increasingly apparent: Wenger’s reluctance to sign Latin American players. An oddity indeed, given that it was the South Americans -- in particular the Brazilians -- who had virtually invented the beautiful game.

Wenger never made any reference to this -- at least, not that I’ve seen -- and I’ve been looking. There were some Latinos -- Gilberto, for instance, but he was far from being a typically skillful Brazilian. Then there was Carlos Vela, a young (17-years old) Mexican. Wenger signed him, loaned him out, brought him back, kept praising him, but rarely put him on the field.

It almost seemed that Wenger was incapable of deciding whether Vela had talent or not. Eventually, Vela went to Spain, where last year, playing for Real Sociedad, he was voted one of the three best strikers in La Liga -- alongside Ronaldo and Costa.

The only other creative Latino signed by Wenger was Eduardo -- the Brazilian-naturalized-Croatian whose short English career was abruptly ended by a brutal tackle that broke his leg. And all the while that Wenger was assiduously avoiding Latinos, they were turning up all over Europe, usually as star creative players, often as top scorers.

Surely Wenger must have known this. But he never mentioned it, and showed no sign of being interested. Until now. Suddenly we have a new Wenger. As though Rip Van Wenger has finally woken up and recognized reality.

On the field, reality has arrived in the form of the Chilean Alexi Sanchez. At last, a genuine South American forward, with all the subtlety, skill and artistry that implies. Off the field, a more astonishing reality has set in. Wenger now finds it possible to talk about Latin players.

And how. The more Wenger talks about Latinos, the stranger things get. For instance: “If you look across Europe, South America is the only continent that develops strikers. Across Europe, at least 80 percent of strikers come from South America.”

In his newly evident liking for Latinos, he’s probably exaggerating, but in essence what he says is the truth. But Arsene, it’s been the truth for about a decade now. Where have you been?

He says “Sanchez and [Luis] Suarez, they played street football, park football,” and is even to be heard suggesting that European players could learn from the competitive attitude of their South American teammates.

What makes this doubly odd is that during his 18 years at Arsenal, Wenger has signed a raft of young French players, many of them from African backgrounds -- which, with its basis of street soccer, is surely similar to what he is now seeing as the key to Latin superiority.

I’m far from complaining about any of Wenger’s comments, I happen to abundantly agree with them. But there is absolutely nothing new in them: “If you go 30, 40 years back in England, life was tougher. Society has changed. We are much more protected than we were 30 years ago. We have all changed. We have all become a bit softer ... When the game is all a bit more formulated then it is developing your individual skill less, your fighting attitude. We have lost that a little bit ... We have to question ourselves, what can we add to our academies to develop strikers again?”

Can Wenger possibly imagine he is coming up with anything new, when all that has been said before, many times? How can one not be skeptical when one of the most intelligent coaching minds in the game can systematically ignore the Latin talent pool for over a decade, then quite suddenly become super-enthusiastic with a rush of comments that others (and yes, I’ll include myself among them) have been making all the time.

Maybe there really has been a Rip Van Wenger dozing off for a decade. Rather alarmingly, the sleep may stretch back a good deal further. I find this recollection of his almost archaic: “If you look at the 1960s, 1970s in England, even when I arrived in 1996, in every club you had strikers. And I mean strikers. Guys who could head the ball. They were on every cross. We have less now.”

Is that really Wenger’s definition of a striker? Someone who head crosses? That is wedded to a steadfastly, and hopelessly outdated, British view of how soccer is played these days. Can Wenger really be saying that Sanchez and Suarez prefer to be “getting on the end of crosses,” than to have the ball played to their feet?

At the moment, we have just one Latino -- I mean a real Latino with the trademark Latino “beautiful game” skills -- at Arsenal. Obviously, I’m hoping that Wenger means everything he says about the pedigree of Latin players. If he does mean it, then more Latin signings for Arsenal must certainly follow. Mustn’t they?

7 comments about "Rip Van Wenger wakes up to the obvious".
  1. Lou vulovich, November 3, 2014 at 5:43 a.m.

    Paul there was a time not too long ago that in Europe the beautiful game was played there too, the Yugoslavs,French and Iberians all played great football. Today the game has become completely westernized, robotic look even the Brazilians want to play like the Germans well not the players just the coaches and when the most free thinking skillful country gives up on its style and tradition in international competition everyone else follows.
    I believe the Academies were the worst thing that ever happened to soccer, the reason being now a former minor level left back is telling a great 12 year old how to think and how to play, the joy and creativeness are drilled right out of all children at at young age.
    Look everywhere you will see great 9 and 10 and 12 year olds but by the time they are 16 all of their game has been drilled right out of them. My opinion is not to bring more Latin players to Europe and the US but to bring more South American coaches, yes the ones whom coached Suarez and Sanchez not only coaches but SA ideas. I don't mean Mexican, Americans born in LA even though a couple are not bad.
    I could go on and on. As for Arsenal all the Sanche's in the world won't help if your center back is 6 foot 8 and moves like a turtle.

  2. Kent James, November 3, 2014 at 8:37 a.m.

    I like and respect Arsene Wenger as a coach, and Paul is right to point out that such a skills-oriented coach does not have more players from SA. But I find it someone ironic (and I'm not sure why PG does not find this troubling) that Wenger is not praising the skill of the South Americans, but their toughness and desire, which he attributes to their street soccer background.

  3. Gus Keri, November 3, 2014 at 8:55 a.m.

    I don't understand Paul's consistent criticism of Wenger. Arsenal have been playing the most entertaining soccer in England for the last two decades. Wenger haven't used Latin American players. So what? he used a lot of Latin Europeans, African-Europeans and skillful Anglo-Saxons who play the beautiful game.

  4. Robert Heinrich, November 3, 2014 at 3:51 p.m.

    What is the point of this article? It seems to be Paul's sour grapes that he's been saying this for 10 years and wasn't having his viewpoint taken seriously but now that Wenger says it, it's a big deal. And he doesn't like it (or maybe Wenger). Wenger has prejudices, no doubt about it. So? Maybe in your next column, you can tell us how US Soccer doesn't utilize its Latin American talent. Now that's a story that has relevance here. Oh wait...

  5. Chris Mitchell, November 3, 2014 at 11:57 p.m.

    Why does Wenger "suddenly" have a South American star player? Because it's only in the last couple of years that he has had real money to spend. Last year he tried to buy Suarez, unsuccessfully. This year he bought Alexis, a similar player in many ways. In leaner years, he has had to make do with unproven Latin Americans who he could get on the cheap; like Vela, who despite his success in La Liga, did very little to seize his opportunities at Arsenal. Or like Wellington Silva, who has not been able to get a work permit to play in England. Or like Eduardo, a Paul-Gardner-defying example of a flair-filled Latin striker looking to become a star at Arsenal, before his career was ruined by a violent tackle. But primarily it's all about money, which is why the big-name Latin Americans in England have almost all played for the two clubs run by oil barons. This explanation makes much more sense than Wenger (who has many flaws) having some inexplicable blind spot for an entire continent of footballers.

  6. Amos Annan, November 4, 2014 at 4:48 a.m.

    NONSENSE

  7. Dustin Johnson, November 9, 2014 at 11:22 a.m.

    I can't believe my comments were removed. I said nothing that was overly wrong outside the exact thing that makes America great...that we are a mix of everything. I think soccer America ought to start to question Paul Gardener's obsession. Though the view from editorial offices in Wilton Connecticut could probably use a latinization - why not start with editorial writers.

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