How Arsene Wenger established African players in English football

A look into the French manager’s African football legacy following his departure from Arsenal after 22 years.

In 1999, Wenger set a new English transfer record in signing Kanu [Reuters]
In 1999, Wenger set a new English transfer record in signing Kanu [Reuters]

Arsene Wenger left the pitch for the final time as Arsenal manager following a 1-0 away win to Huddersfield on the final day of the English Premier League season.

Three league titles, a record seven FA Cups, and two Manager of the Year awards make the Frenchman one of the most successful managers in English football.

However, the impact of Wenger’s 22-year reign at the London club goes far beyond the silverware.

“Wenger is not just a football coach. He’s a man who knows we are all human beings before footballers. And that’s why he was able to affect the lives of so many people positively,” former Nigerian international Nwankwo Kanu, who helped Wenger win two league titles, told Al Jazeera.

Among the many things that will define Wenger’s legacy following his exit is his role in establishing African players at the forefront of English football.

When Wenger arrived in London in 1996 to take over at Arsenal, there was not a single African player in the first team squad of any of the premier league’s top five teams.

Three years later, Wenger set a new English transfer record for an African player, paying £4.5m for Kanu. In total, the Frenchman had 16 African players play for him during his Arsenal reign.

“It was a symbolic move,” said Gary Al-Smith, an Africa football writer.

“Considering the money involved, it gave millions of budding African footballers the belief that if they work hard enough, there was an Arsene Wenger willing to give them a chance.” 

He added that Wenger’s acquisition of the Nigerian forward also helped transform attitudes in England towards African players.

“Before Kanu arrived, it was believed in England that the archetypical African player was big and strong, and suited to being a defender or defensive midfielder. Kanu was different. He was tall, lanky and a technically gifted player.”

Wenger’s arguably greatest team, known as the Invincibles after winning the league in 2003-04 without losing a game, is something that will distinguish him forever.

The Invincibles had a core of internationals from the continent – Kanu, Cameroon international Lauren and Kolo Toure from the Ivory Coast. The unbeaten streak had a huge impact on the perception of African players.

Jeremie Aliadiere, a French forward with an Algerian background, was part of that squad and recalled that “during the invincible era, every game we went into, we knew we weren’t going to lose – and Wenger was a massive part of that confidence”.

Al-Smith added: “Wenger made everyone believe African players could be relied on and could help win titles.”

‘Like a father’

Wenger’s faith in African players can be traced back to his time coaching French club Monaco where he unearthed one of the true gems of world football, George Weah.

The former striker, who is now the president of Liberia, was signed by Wenger in 1992.

Weah went on to become the only African to be crowned World Footballer of the Year and credits Wenger for helping him achieve his success, saying that he was a father figure to him.

A number of Arsenal players expressed similar sentiments to Weah, including Aliadiere.

“He’s like a second father to me,” said Aliadiere.

“He brought me to Arsenal when I was 16. I had some difficult times with injuries, but he never let me down and always believed in me. We are still close now.”

Wenger is a very passionate man and still very hungry for success

Jeremie Aliadiere, French forward

Wenger’s final moments at Arsenal will not be remembered fondly for his side’s performances on the pitch.

Last year, Arsenal finished fifth in the league. This season, the team ended up sixth, Arsenal’s lowest finish in the league under Wenger.

Despite the underwhelming show on the field, Wenger managed to embolden his African legacy further during this season.

In January, with his last major signing, Wenger signed Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund for a record £56m ($76m).

Wenger has left Arsenal with a core of African talent intact, including Egypt’s Mohamed Elneny and Nigeria’s Alex Iwobi, in addition to Aubameyang.

Wenger says he wants to continue working, and his departure from Arsenal does not mean his contribution to the development of African football will stop.

Aliadierre believes his former boss still has plenty of fire.

“He is a very passionate man and still very hungry for success. I won’t be surprised to see him at another club winning trophies next season.”

Source: Al Jazeera

More from Features
Most Read