There are still moments when Arsene Wenger sits at his desk in Zurich – of course overlooking every type of pitch, from 11-a-side to beach football – and wonders about the scale of the task he has taken on. Perhaps facing Sir Alex Ferguson or Pep Guardiola was easier.
“When you sit here and think, ‘I have to improve football in the world’, you realise that it’s not easy, you know,” Wenger laughs, before gesturing to the pitches below. “I would rather say ‘give me a team and down there I can show you what I can do’. But once you sit here and say, ‘how much, 211 countries? OK, thank you very much!’”
And yet, as great as Wenger’s managerial legacy is, there are so many moments in speaking to him about his role as Fifa chief of global football development when it’s impossible not to wonder how much the wider game could have benefitted from his rare insight.
“I can understand that as long as I was at Arsenal I didn’t care too much about that because I had to win the next game,” he says. “Once you have a global vision of world football, you realise something is not right.”
Wenger has probably attracted most focus in the role for fronting the move for a biennial World Cup, but his real work – and a truly great responsibility – is raising the level of the sport across the planet so every country and every child has a chance in the game.
“I believe really football can change the world,” he said at the Fifa Women’s Football Convention in Sydney last month. “Not just on the football side, the human side. That’s the next step.”
Wenger is sitting here on transfer deadline day explaining in a wide-ranging interview with the The Independent exactly how. It is a particular challenge when he goes to countries like Ivory Coast and the president tells him they haven’t had an official youth game in five years.
“And here you have Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Kolo Toure, you know we have the players, it’s a football country,” Wenger says.
“I always think there’s a little girl or a little boy who has a dream, has the talent and no opportunity.”
It’s all the more frustrating for Wenger since there is now a strong argument that football is the most popular cultural pursuit the planet has ever seen, particularly with the way it continues to spread into the United States and India, all the while generating huge amounts of money. Most of that, however, stays in one corner of the globe.
“In Europe, it’s all done and we are a little bit not conscious of the needs elsewhere, because in some countries there’s no [football] education… it’s incredible.
“Football is conquering the world at an unstoppable speed and at the moment there is a dysfunction between the audience and the practice in some countries.”
In other words, there aren’t the resources to match the interest: the dream.
Wenger talks about how the first steps to solving this are creating free centres of excellence for the best young talent and spreading out from there to create grassroots structures. Fifa is currently funding 25 academies, and the former Arsenal manager recently had the coaches involved at his office for the final preparations. Such is the nature of the discussion and the nature of his thinking, though, that an hour-long interview spreads into all manner of areas. They include:
There’s then the vintage manner in which he offers profound insights about football, and seemingly simple lines that capture so much, just in sitting there talking about it. Employing Wenger to directly study the game only amplifies that, and it is what he has spent the last few years doing since taking the job in 2019.
“We analysed football in 205 countries and we found in half of the world there’s a deficit in education… which I mean as identification of talent, coaching programme, quality of coaching, quality of the competitions and integration in the first team.
“What we basically found out by analysing the whole world is there’s a huge correlation between the quality of the educational system and the results in the first team. That was mathematics.
“We proposed to each member association to help them to develop the education. Basically, if you have no education in life, you have no chance, so my purpose was of course to change that.”
Some of the challenges themselves come from what has been one of the most transformational factors in the modern game. That is the way a sequence of wealthy western European countries such as France, Spain, Germany and now England have essentially industrialised talent production. Wenger himself points to how [France’s national football academy] Clairefontaine-fashioned underage teams were thrashing England’s when he arrived at Arsenal in 1996, but that no longer happens. England has caught up. I put to him that the old line from journalist and former footballer Eamon Dunphy – that “dictatorships and poverty” produce good footballers – no longer applies.