Arsene Wenger, transformation ambassadors and Nigeria’s Nelson Mandela

By Simbo Olorunfemi (

Goodluck Jonathan

Arsenal fans have put up with nine years of failurefor the love of one man–Author Unknown

The pen can be mischievious. It will often lead you in the direction of trouble, of its own accord. This time it has led me in a direction closer home than I will willingly go – the Emirates Stadium. But with trepidation I go, expecting that a knock might come from an Arsenal fan in my corner.

I assume we are mostly agreed that Nigerians are fanatical about their football. The English Premier League (EPL) has stolen its way into our lives, courtesy of smart marketing and the domination by foreign-based cable TV, which has edged out local TV to become the default broadcast platform of the day. We now have millions of Nigerians who passionately follow European football leagues and devoutly worship at the temple of the god of soccer.

Of these devotees, Arsenal fans are in a class of their own.  They are passionate, committed and proud proponents of a philosophy  they believe is akin to the renowned tiki-taka made popular by FC Barcelona of Spain. Indeed, in the English Premier League, the team plays a peculiar variant of free-flowing football, pleasing to the eye, even though it has not yielded the desired results (trophies) in the last few years. Even though Spurs fans are quick to remind us the brand of football Arsenal lays claim to was originally theirs, who really cares? Definitely, not Arsenal fans. They (especially those in Nigeria) like to believe they have the patent over some kind of champagne football. They gloat over this. But can you blame them? Fans are entitled to believe what will make them feel good, even if they have to rebase the GDP of the club in the process, to have something to hold on to.

But even the most ardent of fans will agree that it has not been smooth-sailing for Arsenal in the last nine years. The team finally managed to win a trophy (FA Cup) after a drought of 10 long years less one. It also retained the fourth place “trophy” in theEPL. What does it matter thatArsenal had to rebase its strategy by featuring a team with an average age of almost 30 years to beat Championship team, Wigan,in the semi-final match of the FA Cup? Setting aside its acclaimed commitment to youth, an excuse often touted for the extended years of failure by the team, to win the FA Cup speaks to the flexibility required, that has not always been there. Even though it has finally broken the jinx, eding this barren run, the fault lines are still evident, for those who care to see.

The question is – what has Arsenal been doing wrong in the last few years?  Analysts largely situate thisaround Arsene Wenger’s obstinate belief in an obsolete template. But many Arsenal fans will hardly ever agree to the fact that the beloved Professor could be the problem, given his record. They will often take an attack on Wenger as an attack on their team, often taking on the messenger rather than the message. As one season ends, they promise themselves the next season. “In Arsene, we trust”, they would chorus.

A new season begins, Arsenal catches fire. The team raises the hope of her fans. They begin to sing the old song to critics – did we not tell you? Can you see us now? Even when analysts tell them to take it easy, they would brush aside caution and spread their hopes in the sun for neighbours to see. Before you know it, a needle goes into the balloon. And within weeks, the leak is apparent to all,  hope lies in tatters at the Emirates. Wenger’s water bottles are all over the place. Then the battle for fourth place begins. The team barely makes it, there is relief, and hope is rekindled for the season to come.The new season comes, history sneaks in to repeat itself, all over. That was the story for nine years until the FA Cup triumph of May 17.

In spite of this, some of these fans resolutely locate the problem everywhere else but at the doorstep of Monsieur Arsene Wenger. But for occasional moments of loss-induced high fever, these fans resign themselves to an unquestioninglove of Wenger. Even when the perfomance of the team does not justify the devotion, they hold on to love.

The devoted lovers of the Frenchman remind us of the fans of our own Action Leader, who has been busy with the transformation of Nigeria in the last five years.  Does Arsene Wenger’s barren run remind us of the years of the locust? Does it remind us of theproductivity of our Lee Kuan Yew, courtesy of the world-class transformation agenda? Transformation ambassadors liken our man to Nelson Mandela. They remind us of all the good work he has done. They tell us it is just that their man does not like to talk about it. They tell us – what we see is not what it is.

For some of them, their love is founded on ethnic affiliation, pseudo-religious,bread and butter considerations or some feel-good it-is-our-turn-to-chop syndrome. But it is not about them. It is about our today and tomorrow. It is about them asking us to endure this barren run for the love of their man. They are so lost in love with their own Arsene Wenger that  nothing else matters. Some umbrella-wielding  sympathisers of our Martin Luther King are so love-stricken that any voice raised contrary to theirs is dubbed partisan. No matter is sacrosanct when it comes to this undying love. And they crawl the net, seeking to spread the good news of transformation. They feel compelled to justify whatever the man does, irrespective of logic or reason. To them, dancing in the house of mourning is a show of strength. We ought to applaud the “skelewu” moves of the dancer, rather than condemn him. He is not fiddling, he is only dancing.

Their Arsene Wenger cannot be faulted, even when it comes to his team selection or substitutions made in the course of the game. He takes out Bolaji Abdulahi, a world-class striker and replaces him with…who again?To spite an agent spotted in the camp of another team, he takes out a proven striker and replaces him with a man who cannot score a goal to save his life.Arsenal fans have been asking their manager to buy world-class players for years now! Guess who he just bought? Musiliu Obanikoro! How does he guarantee winning the Emirates Cup with him in the Defence! Imagine how long it took him to take out Stella Oduah from the team. Commentators, pundits and fans have shouted themselves hoarse, but Diezani and Abba Moro are still an integral part of the team. Even when Sanusi Lamido Sanusi has been sidelined for a proper examination of his hamstring injury, the beloved Abba Moro is still in the team with a broken leg.

But the fans of Nigeria’s own Arsene Wenger are unfazed. They are not moved. They tell you it was not easy for Barack Obama. It was not easy for Lee Kuan Yew. It was not easy for Nelson Mandela. It was not easy for Martin Luther King. So, it is not easy for Arsene Wenger.  Even when their man’s team scores an own goal, they applaud him.  The team suffers a painful loss in the hands of Nyanya bombers, yet the manager is not sober.He elects to continue with the campaign in Kano, all that matters is that new contract. He elects to dance in the house of mourning, the fans hail him. It is not easy for him, they tell us. He can do no wrong.

Your Arsene Wenger can never do wrong?We agree. You cheer him, throw jibes at critics, accuse anyone with a contrary opinion of partisanship. We agree. But can you please wake up and face the facts? Nigeria is no Arsenal. There is the matter of 200 students kidnapped at Chibok. There was Buni-Yadi and Nyanya. We are losing lives daily, wasting young men and women. One might begin to think that Thomas Hobbes had this place in mind when he wrote about the state of nature where life is short, nasty and brutish. Please remind Arsene Wenger of Chibok, Buni-Yadi, Nyanya. Let him know there is more to life than a new contract. Let him know this barren run is long enough.  Let him know this is not the time to dance.

Transformation ambassadors, please take a cue from the fans of Manchester United. The moment they saw through the “Chosen One”, they began to ask questions. They queried the results and labelled him the “Wrong One”. Today, the “Chosen One” has become the “rejected one”.  Many Arsenal fans have also seen the light. A number of the fans had started singing a different song for Arsene Wenger for sometime now. Had he failed to win the FA Cup, your guess is as good as mine. The man too had read between the lines. He took his time, only committing to a new contract after winning the trophy.

Another season beckons for the new-found love to be put to test.  There are only so many barren years that even the most  faithful fans can endure. Yours should not be different – how many lean years are you willing to endure for the love of one man?

  •  Olorunfemi, a brands and political strategist writes from Lagos.