12 October 2021

Et tu, Arsène? Has he sold his soul to the Saudis?

Disturbing news continues to emanate out of Saudi Arabia. Last last week, the Saudi government's purchase of Newcastle was approved, prompting a surge in stock prices in fainting couches and smelling salts. In all seriousness, though, this was a move a long time in the offing, with Mike Ashley coming across as only slightly more objectionable than a government with a penchanct for dismembering its critics with a bonesaw and is not entirely out of character for a league in which profits frequently (read: always) prioritises profits over principles. Still, this latest newswhich has club legend and ostensibly all-around good person Arsène Wenger being hired on to manage an all-star squad featuring players from two Saudi Arabian clubs against Paris Saint-Germain in January 2022. Um, wot?

The Riyadh Season Cup, which is apparently a real thing, is a one-match tournament (?) pitting players from Saudi Arabia's two biggest clubs, Al Hilal FSC and Al Nassr FC, against none other than PSG. It's as if a writer of dystopian satire was throwing darts or playing mad libs. It is to be assumed that the Al Hilal/Al Nassr hybrid will give PSG a mighty challenge the likes of which they rarely see outside of Ligue 1.

More to the point, though, is the involvement of none other than Arsène Wenger, a man whose name is synonmymous with fair play, justice, parsimony, and an overall commitment to humanity that transcends accomplishments on the pitch. Here is a manager who bound himself for the better part of two decades to running one of the world's biggest and most-successful clubs on a veritable shoe-string, sacrificing on-pitch success at the altar of sane and balanced transfer policies (to the frequent dismay of fans, it must be added). He was nothing short of a visionary, one whose vision for this club was ultimately scuppered by the influx of oil-rich robber barons buying up clubs, inflating transfer fees and wages through the roof, and all but proving that the only path to success lay in the hands of a super-rich megalomaniac who was willing to buy a club and then go on to buy any player that suited his fancy.

With that in mind, one might hope that Arsène would hold to the principles that served him so well for so long. According the chairman of Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority , Turki al-Sheikh, "the great international coach Arsène Wenger was signed to lead the stars of al-Hilal and al-Nasr against Paris Saint Germain in the Riyadh Season Cup." So. Not content to have purchased a club of Newcastle's pedigree (scoff if you will; they've enjoyed a fair amount of success in their time), the House of Saud has apparently purchased one of the world's most-respected managers to oversee a glorified friendly. I'm not sure which part of that sentence would upset me the most. Would it feel better if it was a match of record? If Arsène was managing an actual Saudi club that was vying for a league championship? Honestly, it's hard to know what to feel other than a mix of disbelief, disappointment, and, yes, even depression.

More than anyone else, I (and I suspect many others) have looked to Arsène as a kind of moral beacon, the kind of person who was willing to stick to principles even at the price of personal success. As it goes, he passed up numerous invitations to manage wealthier clubs with owners willing to purchase any players he desired. He reportedly spurned these offers, time and time again, in order to pursue and fulfill a higher calling: to build a successful, self-sustaining club (even if some of the funding came from unsavory sources...). We saw him riding off into the proverbial sunset unsullied, unbowed, uncompromised.

This disturbing news jolts me into facing a cold, hard reality that Arsène had done so much to teach me against facing: money talks. On one hand, I ask myself, who am I to begrudge a man who pledged 22 years of his life to managing the club I love? Does he not deserve a golden parachute? On the other, I ask myself, what do all of those years stand for if he's apparently willing to trade it all in for a bit of lucre?

By doing so, this club legend sells his reputation to the highest bidder, and, in so doing, lends his considerable imprimatur to a country and a government that is clearly eager to buy its way toward legitimacy. We've come a long way in a short time from that time that Queen Elizabeth terrified Crown Prince Abdullah by taking the wheel and careening around the winding roads of Scotland to a time when a recipient of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire was willing to rent himself to that Crown Prince's heirs.

At this point, the only twist of the janbīyah that we haven't seen is Arsène assuming some kind of role at Newcastle—manager may be too much of a stretch at his age, but he could oversee the club as its director of football or some such. May we never live to see the day.