Arsenal in Africa: Arsene Wenger’s legacy
Upending the English football apple cart has got to be one of the lasting legacies of Arsene Wenger’s over-two decades in change at Arsenal.
Not only did the Frenchman disrupt the mentality of players and managers, he also brought a unique, continental stye that shifted the landscape and, for that, English football will forever owe him a debt.
However, the change didn’t just end in England; reverberations spread out across the world, and nowhere more so than in Nigeria.
Pre-Wenger, the preponderance of Nigerians in the United Kingdom – largely a result of the colonial ties between the two countries – meant that European football support centred mostly on the English league and its big clubs, with the Italian Serie A a distant second.
Manchester United and Liverpool held sway, with Arsenal barely cracking the radar and sharing third place with the likes of Nottingham Forest and even Aston Villa. This, despite London being referred to in anecdotical Nigerian terms as mini-Nigeria.
Apparently, it would seem to appear that there was not a club in London able to resonate as strongly with the Nigerian community as those two behemoths.
That was until 1999, when Wenger signed a young Nwankwo Kanu from Inter Milan.
The Frenchman couldn’t have had much idea what that decision meant for Nigerian football fans or how it would affect support for the club thousands of miles away.
But it did.
At the time, Kanu was Nigerian football’s emerging golden boy. Having captained the country to the U-17 World Cup title in 1993, the beanpole forward with the silky footwork and football’s equivalent of an Einstein IQ, then proceeded to go one better three years after.
This time he was to captain Nigeria to an Olympic gold medal, the country’s highest achievement in world football.
A legend was born and Nigerians revelled in their new starlet, but then the story took a near tragic turn; Kanu was diagnosed with heart disease and a potentially promising career looked dead before it had barely arrived.
Thankfully, a timely surgery led to a happy ending, but Kanu struggled to make his mark at Inter.
When Wenger intervened to bring him to London, the combination of passion, legend, support and culture combined to build a bond between club and fans in diaspora.
That bond saw Arsenal catch up with, and move ahead of Liverpool, to run neck and neck with Manchester United. Wenger himself, at one point, was all but elevated to demi-god status, and the forward describes his time at Arsenal as the best moments of his career
“I can say that playing under Arsene was one of the best moments of my career,” he told KweséESPN. “He was like a father and the team was like family.
“That is how we became The Invincibles.”
Wenger did not stop at Kanu.
His development and nurturing of other African stars like Lauren, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Alex Song and more helped strengthen a relationship across the continent.
It is perhaps fitting that his last Arsenal transfer would be an African player, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has the quality to potentially eclipse even Kanu’s achievements in North London.
Arsenal’s Academy during his time has also been littered with a horde of players with Nigerian heritage. For the current season, there are nine players of Nigerian heritage listed in the club’s under-21 and academy squads, including the likes of Chuba Akpom, on-loan Kelechi Nwakali and first teamer Alex Iwobi.
Of that number, Akpom and Iwobi are the only two to have made it to the first team.
Iwobi, who broke through much later than his childhood friend, has gone on to become a full Nigeria international, reaffirming the relationship that began with Kanu.
Beyond the signing of players, Wenger’s brand of aesthetic football, especially coming as it did at a time when English football was largely shaped by Manchester United’s slightly more direct, somewhat gung-ho style, also captured hearts.
As he leaves the club at the end of the season, he will do so having established a solid foothold for the Arsenal way in the minds and hearts of fans in places far beyond their previous reaches.
Especially in Africa.
The key question then is whether whoever replaces him will continue in the same traditions, or whether he will want to make his own mark on the Gunners.
In terms of the first team, Iwobi may be one of those with reason to be concerned.
The youngster has had Arsene’s heart for the last two seasons, and when in form, has shown the potential to do great things.
However, in recent months, his output has declined and reports of partying have not helped his case, even leading to disciplinary action by Wenger on one occasion.
What is not in doubt however, is his talent, and Kanu is confident Iwobi will still have a place in a post-Wenger Arsenal
“I don’t think Wenger’s departure will affect him knowing he is a good player and young,” Kanu added.
Wenger’s departure is certain to be the catalyst for some changes – good or bad – at Arsenal, but it is unlikely to roll back the grip he has helped the club put on the hearts of fans around the continent, particularly in Nigeria.
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