But you even stepped back: Martin Keown said that in the decisive game vs Liverpool in 2004 that Arsenal turned around, he was the man for the speech at half-time.
He didn’t take over my job, but I let the players talk at some points. Some things on the pitch are only visible for the players themselves and it is their right to address it. It is important that the players own your philosophy, so you can let them carry on by themselves. It happened that I entered the dressing-room at half-time and just asked the players: What do you think?
So you demanded that the players look after themselves?
I demanded them to communicate with each other. Communication is a vital part of a team and its improvement. A team who communicates is dynamic. When you lose, players are going into their shell. You have to get them out and animate them to speak on and off the pitch.
Is it true that one way for you to cope with pressure was listening to Reggae music?
Sometimes yes. I liked Bob Marley. His music was not fabricated, but hand-made, inspiring and relaxing at the same time. It smells love for life and cools you down. This guy died at the age when football players retire, at 35. There are similarities. He came from a poor side of the city like many of my players, he made it thanks to his strength. One of my favourite song was “Could you be loved?”. I felt it related to the stories in his songs. I also like Léo Ferré, but I guess you won’t know him. It is the French poets I love to listen to.
Did you have other means for relaxing?
Watching football. I am ashamed to think how much time of my life I spent watching football matches. There was no bigger pleasure than winning early on a Saturday morning and to then have the rest of the weekend as free time to watch football. That was the perfect weekend for me.
„For me, the meaning of life is football“
Don’t you have regrets squandering time when watching for example a 0 – 0 draw between Burnley and West Brom?
Yes, but it is like any other cultural thing. When you watch ten movies, some are not so exciting, or when you go to the theatre ten times, you don’t always feel entertained. But I always learnt something from every game I watched.
Would you say you neglected your family?
Yes, I should have spent more time with the family. A guy with a strong passion makes people around him suffer. I feel guilty for that. On the other hand, my passion allowed my family to enjoy a good life. That doesn’t compensate for lack of presence. But life has no special meaning unless you have found it individually for yourself. And for me, the meaning of life is football.
That makes it even stranger to imagine you not being involved in the game anymore.
It’s strange for me as well. My plan is to develop a modern infrastructure around the world with FIFA so that every talent can blossom, no matter where he or she was born. We have to bridge the gap and make sure that not all the talents are being attracted to Europe. That is a challenge but of course, on weekends, it is hard for me not standing on the touchline. Football is a drug for me, but there is a time for everything in life. I leave it open if I will ever coach again.
How close did you come to managing Bayern last year?
Not very close. I had a phone call with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge because people said that I offered my service for the job at Bayern. It wasn’t true. So it was important to clarify that. Bayern didn’t call me for the job either. They made the right decision for Flick. Congratulations to him.
The closest you came to managing a club after Arsenal was Lyon in 2019, is that correct?
Yes. I had offers afterwards but I didn’t take them.
Why haven’t you been to the Emirates since you left Arsenal?
I thought that since I moved away it’s good to be completely away. I don’t want to excert a shadow on anyone. The best way was to cut the strings completely.
Has it something to do with the criticism of some fans at the end of your stay at Arsenal?
Not really. That was a minority. The day I left the fans were absolutely grateful. I built the training centre, I built the stadium and I paid it back. But some guys lacked respect for me in the end, it’s because of the emotions and they are part of it. I forgive them all but it wasn’t enjoyable at the time: When you look at the clubs I turned down (Real, Juventus, for example – editor’s note) and kept on managing Arsenal with little resources, I sensed a bit of injustice towards me.
In France, we say: Gratefulness is the disease of a dog that is not transmittable to men. (smiles) In the long run, people respect what I did: I served the club with integrity and consistency. I am very proud of that. The human side of a club in general has been lost. When I started at Arsenal, there were 70 persons at the club, now there are around 700. That has an effect on the way you manage a club. But I had the privilige to work with exceptional people in every regard.
When looking back at your 22 years at Arsenal, isn’t it curious that it all started by chance with a cigarette?
It definitely is. Life is about attitude, curiosity and coincidence. It depends on little things. I would have never managed Arsenal if I hadn’t learnt English or if I hadn’t smoked. In 1989, I was watching a game of Galatasaray as part of my job as a manager of Monaco. On the flight back, I stopped in London by chance and used the time to watch an Arsenal game. During half-time, I looked for a lighter for my cigarette. A friend of Barbara Dein offered one to me, and we started to chat. Barbara Dein was the wife of the Arsenal chairman David Dein and later on, she introduced me to him. They invited me to their apartment and we played charades in English.
„I liked Bayern’s style of play“
It was a social evening with many friends at his house and so I just participated in the charades. They asked me to play and I said: I will try. I don’t remember my role but David thought: This guy is not stupid. We kept in touch and met several times in the south of France. In 1996, he finally gave me the chance to manage Arsenal.
To sum it up: How can a manager make a team invincible?
You have to have good players. (pauses) You have to move forward, even when you are already good. A manager has to implement the desire to move forward and give his team a clear picture of what they could achieve together. Today, it is more complex to install that unity. Because the relations inside a club are too complicated with too many people being involved. But simplicity and clarity in the organization are keys for success. The clubs nowadays are overloaded with too many people and you can’t really measure the efficiency of them all.
Will a team repeat an unbeatable season?
Liverpool was not far away. This year they have already lost. They try to improve their technical ability in midfield with Thiago; Henderson and Milner were important but they are getting older. But at the moment, there is no hugely dominant team in Europe. I liked Bayern’s style of play and Barcelona in their prime but there is no team you would die to watch. But concerning your question: Yes, I think, one day, our record could be repeated. But it will take some time.