CAPE TOWN - In those famous lines from the William Shakespeare play, Mark Antony delivers a rousing speech at the funeral of Julius Caesar: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
The words reverberated through my mind last Friday when it was announced that Arsene Wenger had decided that enough’s enough - he will step down as Arsenal manager at the end of the season.
Antony’s opening quote is a reminder that history tends to remember the negative, while all that is positive is somehow lost in the wash. And so, for purposes of this column, in contrast to Antony, I come to praise Wenger, not to bury him.
Despite the despair of the last few seasons, the 68-year-old Frenchman’s legacy is secure. I prefer to remember the innovation, success and joy I derived from watching the football produced by teams he prepared.
I have no doubt that we have not seen the last of Monsieur Wenger - he is too passionate about football to simply go quietly into the night; make no mistake, he will continue to rage against the dying of the light and find more football projects to change and conquer in his unique, inimitable way.
The Wenger legend is, of course, well-known - the tale that started as far back as 1996 when the man the press referred to as “Wenger Who?” first arrived at the famous north London club.
The Gunners won the league and cup double in his first full season in charge and the face of English football was changed. In the country that invented the sport, Wenger quickly reinvented the game. Call it the first revolution if you will - because the second revolution (under Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola) is already under way.
The Wenger romance then goes on to narrate his introduction of new training methods, dietary regimes and plucking footballers from obscurity and transforming them into world stars.
For this passionate football follower, with a life-long devotion to Liverpool, watching Arsenal play with such flair and panache during those years was an exercise in pleasure and pain.
There was Wenger’s meticulous planning, the attention to every minute detail, which then all culminated in that most amazing season in 2003-04 when Arsenal won the league title without losing a single game - "The Invincibles" campaign was just something else and it didn’t really matter which team you supported; the achievement had to be celebrated.
Now, 22 years later after he joined Arsenal, Wenger will move on - three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups and 20 successive years in the Champions League - but his immense contribution to Arsenal will live on. More importantly, he provided world football with a unique chapter on how to take the game forward - and, needless to say, in the process, he galvanised and inspired many of the coaches and managers who came after.
But, for me, a life is always more than just football. It’s about the character that resides deep within. Underneath Wenger’s quiet, brooding persona, there seems to lurk a steely determination, while the obvious charm and charisma conceal the man’s supreme intellectual bent and deeply philosophical outlook on existence.
Even in what many would suggest was Wenger’s greatest flaw - his inability to evolve with the rest of the Premier League clubs in recent years - it still, nevertheless, demonstrates his immense strength of character.
He always remained true to who he was - he was noticeably uncomfortable with the influx of money and the quick-fix notion of buying titles. Where’s the hard work? It never sat well with his view of the world and life in general.
It reminded me again of my most-loved football book - Fever Pitch - when the Arsenal-obsessed writer Nick Hornby says: “I have measured out my life in Arsenal fixtures.” Wenger is much the same. The Hornby quote is based on a line from a TS Eliot poem - The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - in which he says: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
The line from Eliot sums up the character of Wenger: he has measured his life in the past, he has no regrets, and he knows that, going forward, his character will always determine what he will do; in short, he cannot, and will not, change.
He is who he is. And, in a modern, unprincipled world in which people change with just about any gust of wind, and whoever his handing out a cheque, be that above or below the table, Wenger’s insistence on staying true to himself continues to inspire me.
When covering the 2010 World Cup at Cape Town Stadium, I hopped on to the lift to go to the press area, when who should be alongside me? Yes, Wenger, the legend himself. My son is Arsenal mad and devoted to Wenger, so I had no choice but to chat briefly and ask for an autograph. Today, the Wenger scribble adorns our cabinet in the living room - but it’s not just my son’s favourite possession, it’s mine too.