Few of football’s best and brightest managers would ever chance an exotic venture in a far-off country, especially while their reputation was growing. When one such opportunity came Arsène Wenger’s way in the mid-1990s, the former Monaco manager resisted the calls of Europe’s elite and escaped to Japan.
In many ways, this was his journey of self-discovery and improvement; the re-affirmation of his many qualities as a coach before he arrived in England to manage Arsenal. To explain how this journey came about, though, we must start in early-90s France with an event that would have a significant effect on Wenger’s mentality.
Wenger has long projected the image of immortality, but not even he could escape the sack during his long career. It was in 1994, after his sixth year with Monaco, that a poor start to the season saw the Frenchman dismissed from his job for the first and only time of his career. That sacking would be the genesis of the Wenger legend that would be told in England, but before then, he had to rediscover what he loved about the sport.
Anyone would lose confidence after losing their job. However, in Wenger’s case, the circumstances leading up to his departure and the way in which the French game became mired in scandal left him disillusioned. The year 1993 should have been the one that an excellent Marseille team were remembered for a league and European double, but their triumphs were tarred by bribery.
Topping the table going into the final game, Marseille needed just one more win against Valenciennes to secure the title. The game would take place just days before their Champions League final against AC Milan and, fearing that their key players would be injured, owner Bernard Tapie asked player Jean-Jacques Eydelie to contact three Valenciennes players – Jacques Glassmann, Jorge Burruchaga and Christophe Robert – with an offer of money to lose the match.
Marseille would win the game 1-0, claiming what was then their fifth title in succession. When the corruption came to light, the title was stripped away, and then refused by second-placed Paris Saint-Germain, leaving it unattributed.
Wenger’s Monaco had been perpetual chasers behind Marseille since their title triumph in 1988. To finish second best to a great side was one thing, but to lose out due to corruption damaged the integrity of the game and left Wenger, a highly-principled man, angered. “It was the most difficult period of my life,” he reflected in 2013. “When you’re in a job like mine, you worry about every detail. But then to go to work and know that it is all useless is a disaster.”
Although Wenger would lose his job, leaving France for ventures elsewhere, a place less susceptible to corruption was just the opportunity he needed.
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Japanese football was undergoing a dramatic transformation. An influx of foreign talent such as Zico and Dunga had given the sport a popularity boost that wealthy companies felt they could capitalise on. They invested vast sums of money with the intention of elevating the game above Japan’s more popular sports of golf and baseball. One such company was car manufacturers Toyota, owners of Nagoya Grampus Eight.
Nagoya Grampus were a struggling team. During the 1994 season, they finished eighth during the first phase of the J League, and then plummeted to the bottom of the standings during the second phase. They won just six times during the second half of the season and conspired to lose 13 games in a row. For Toyota, who had ambitions of turning Nagoya into one of the world’s biggest clubs, this was far from good enough.
In normal circumstances, Wenger managing Nagoya would never have happened. Here was a highly respected, much sought-after coach who had the likes of Arsenal and Bayern Munich interested in his services. His time at Monaco may not have been laden with silverware, but it saw the rise of several players, not least George Weah, who would attribute his World Player of the Year award in 1995 to Wenger. His reputation in European football was such that moving to Japan was the least obvious choice.
It was during a FIFA conference hosted by the United Arab Emirates in 1994 that Wenger happened to meet a group of Toyota representatives. Wenger had attended the event to deliver a speech to coaches working in up and coming leagues. He left a strong impression on the Japanese, who arranged a meeting and offered him the chance to take over at Nagoya Grampus Eight.
One of the men Wenger met was Grampus’ chairman, Shoichiro Todoya, who proclaimed he wanted to make the club the greatest in Japan and the world within a hundred years. This appealed to the romantic side of Wenger. “That negates the pressure of immediacy in a fabulous way,” he said in an interview with French TV in 2013. “What becomes of a loss if you project your destiny on a century? I also found that idea extremely generous. Only being a conveyor belt in history, as a part of a movement that is much larger than you are. Being part of something that is beyond you. Unfortunately, we live too often with the idea that the world is going to stop after us. That is not humanity.”
After some deliberation, Wenger took the job.
The new league season wouldn’t begin until March 1995. That allowed Wenger suitable time to put together his squad and backroom team. His assistant coach would be former Valenciennes manager Boro Primorac, the whistleblower who exposed the French corruption to the police. The two had forged a close friendship in the aftermath of the scandal, one that would endure for two more decades. Primorac would eventually follow Wenger to Arsenal and work as one of Wenger’s closest confidants, but before then, they had a lot of work to do to turn around Nagoya’s fortunes.
The season did not start well. The losing habit was difficult to kick. Wenger found his squad far too rigid and reliant on him for instruction, a widespread trend within Japanese football at the time. Fortunately, there was no second tier and, therefore, no relegation to fear. Counting this as a blessing, Wenger altered his approach. He openly questioned his team’s desire and urged them to think through their actions on the pitch themselves instead of turning to him for guidance.
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His team rallied. They mustered 15 wins during the first stage of the season, leaving them in fourth place. Their great form continued into the second stage, where 17 wins from 26 games was enough to land them in second, eight points behind leaders Verdy Kawasaki.
Key to this success was the improved form of star player Dragan Stojković. The midfielder was familiar with Wenger during a spell at Marseille between 1990 and 1994. Despite being a league and European Cup winner, Stojković struggled for regular game time in a star-studded team, and made the move to Japan in 1994, a year before Wenger was due to arrive.
Stojković suffered from disciplinary problems but found greater discipline and consistency under the Frenchman’s guidance. His performances were so impressive that he was awarded Player of the Season, despite Nagoya not winning the title. Wenger’s work would also be recognised with the Manager of the Year award.
The 1995 season ended with tangible proof of Nagoya’s progress. Wenger’s team lifted the Emperor’s Cup at the end of the season after defeating Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the final. A brace from forward Takafumi Ogura and a third from Takashi Hirano earned the club its first piece of silverware.
Encouraging free thinking from his players wasn’t all Wenger did. According to his interpreter, Go Murakami, Wenger paid special attention to the basic technical skills of his players. He had his team go through the simplest of drills to improve their passing and ball work, a move that the players likened to going back to school, but one that bore fruit.
In addition, Wenger controlled the players’ diets. Nutritional balance was a cornerstone of his philosophy, and ensured his players were fitter and stronger than the opposition. It’s these methods that would eventually earn Arsenal huge success in the late 90s and early 2000s, but long before stories about the Arsenal players chanting for their Mars bars back, they were being put to good use in humble Japan.
The next step had to be the league title. The 1996 season was the first to abolish the split-season format in favour of crowning a champion through a conventional league format rather than a playoff. Stojković led the way again, scoring 11 times as the club finished second with 21 wins from 30 games. Unfortunately, they finished just short of champions Kashima Antlers.
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Wenger didn’t stay in Japan long enough to leave a significant legacy. There will always be a feeling of what could have been; that maybe Nagoya Grampus would have become serial title winners had Wenger remained. However, as much as he enjoyed his time there, the lure of a big club was too difficult for him to resist. At the end of the 1996 season, Wenger said his goodbyes in Japanese and began his long stint as Arsenal manager.
Nevertheless, Wenger’s work earned him the respect and adoration of the fans and left a lasting impact on Stojković. He returned to the club as manager in 2008, and, in November 2010, led them to their first ever J League title. “Wenger changed everything at the club and he showed the players that they could enjoy playing football, enjoy training,” he would later reflect. “What I understood from him and what I learned from his was what modern football is.”
Wenger would return to Japan in the summer of 2013. In the build-up to Arsenal’s tour, he told the club’s website that his time there had had a profound effect on him. “The vision I have of life changed in Japan. It was absolutely a deep, profound and very, very positive experience,” he said. “I’m very grateful that I went. Perhaps it was a bit crazy of me at the time to decide to go, but I’m thankful for that moment of craziness.”
Among Wenger’s experiences was a newfound ability to distance himself from the pressure brought about by the need to make big decisions. Japan offered Wenger an escape from Europe’s high stakes, high-intensity environment. In isolation brought about by a thick language barrier, Wenger had nothing to fear from the country’s press.
Criticism counted for little when he didn’t understand any of it. These quiet moments gave him the room for contemplation and reflection. When he turned up to training each day, he found players who were eager to learn and improve, and none of the ego so prominent at the highest level. On matchday, playing great football and winning were top priorities, but a lack of relegation was liberating. Risks could be taken without the severe consequences of them backfiring.
He would leap back into the pressure cooker with Arsenal and take on a responsibility far greater than most managers would ever imagine. Following that brief two-year spell in Japan, he could do so with a clearer conscience. This was a tougher Wenger, one who had learned to detach himself from the extreme emotion that elite competitive sport can draw out of people. As the man himself says: “I learned there how to take hold of something by letting go. That’s beneficial at any level. When I got back I was much more lucid, more detached, more serene.”
Along with his faith that the English game was more resistant to corruption, he had nothing to fear. At risk of overstating its importance, that risky, crazy decision to try something different proved to be one of the most significant in Wenger’s legendary career.
By Jamie Einchcomb @jeinchy29